Nine days after the shocking gun violence in Tucson, our nation pauses to reflect on the life of a leader in the African-American struggle for civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. An apostle of nonviolence, Dr. King lived under the constant threat of violence from those who sought to keep America from expanding its commitment to equal opportunity and justice. While not a politician, he shared with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a commitment to educating people about the democratic process, whether through a table at a shopping mall, the ballot box or through nonviolent direct action in the streets.
Bayard Rustin and Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. - Photo by Monroe Frederick
Although he was the most recognized leader of the time, Dr. King was keenly aware that he was part of a movement that began long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Veterans of the struggle served as counselors to the younger Dr. King, among them my late partner Bayard Rustin. An activist since his teenage years, Bayard was pivotal in helping to translate nonviolent philosophy into concrete direct action -- the marches, sit-ins, and boycotts that forced this country to abolish racial segregation laws. When he achieved widespread recognition for his masterful organizing of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard had already spent more than three decades as an activist. He often worked behind the scenes, understanding that his early affiliation with the Young Communist League, his conscientious objection during World War II, and his refusal to closet his gay identity, would taint him as a radical in the eyes of many Americans. He did not want the enemies of freedom to use him as a pawn with which to challenge the credibility of the larger cause.
Like Dr. King, Bayard’s moral principles were deeply rooted in religious faith, and the influence of his Quaker grandmother led him to work for social and economic change. As he matured, he came to understand that engagement in the political process was fundamental to achieving social justice. Along with his mentor A. Philip Randolph, Bayard helped to introduce Dr. King to the labor movement, often an agent for the political education of black workers in an increasingly integrated America.
Bayard’s extraordinary intelligence and abilities enabled him to overcome the racism and homophobia so prevalent during his lifetime, and despite setbacks he never abandoned his faith in the possibilities for human redemption and growth. His early days of activism, sometimes as a lone rider violating segregation laws on a southern bus or train were a testament to his belief that an individual can make a difference, and that one step forward can be the beginning of a movement. That faith in the power of one person to be an agent of change was recalled in President Obama’s remarks in Tucson when he said, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.”
In his later years, Bayard spoke to a variety of LGBT bodies, from national organizations, to church-based groups, to college associations. While his remarks included references to his past experiences as a gay man, they were mainly addressed to the present, to the continuing struggle for equality and the role each of us can play in that fight. He made it clear that although the term “civil rights” was inevitably linked to that most recent struggle of African-Americans, civil rights were the province of all Americans, and that all citizens — regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation — must be equal in the eyes of the law.
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