Most people know about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed letter from Birmingham jail, written on April 16, 1963, which defended the use of non-violent resistance against racism. Fewer know about Bayard Rustin – the gay, African American civil rights leader who helped supply the philosophical underpinnings of that strategy.
Carlos Figueroa, assistant professor of politics at Ithaca College, wants to change that.
Figueroa, who is working on a book about Rustin and his Quaker ethics, discussed the impact of Rustin’s beliefs on MLK’s non-violence in an interview with NPR member station WGLT.
“Martin Luther King Jr. knew about non-violent tactics, but wasn’t so educated in terms of the philosophy behind it,” said Figueroa. “The philosophy and the principles is what Bayard Rustin brought, not only through his own experiences, but his own behavior as well.”
Evidence of this impact can be seen in the letter written by King after he was arrested during a march against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, in which he emphasized Quaker ideals like community and resistance to injustice. His statement that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” echoes Rustin’s own words: “The moral man is he who is opposed to injustice per se, opposed to injustice wherever he finds it.”
Figueroa said that Rustin’s consistent commitment to social justice was grounded in his Quaker upbringing.
“My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter from my being black,” Rustin wrote in the 1980s. “Rather it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”
Despite his important contributions to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, Rustin is less known than other leaders. According to Figueroa, Rustin – gay, black and a socialist and one-time communist – had to work behind the scenes because others were more suited to courting the support of moderates.
But Rustin excelled at that work, which included strategizing and conducting teach-ins. Lamenting the tendency of some modern activists to seek the spotlight, Figueroa said Rustin put the movement – the good of his community and family – before himself.
Figueroa’s scholarship focuses on U.S. Quakers, race and citizenship; American political development; black politics and political thought; Latino and border politics; and public leadership. He recently published an article on Quaker interventions into U.S. politics in “The Journal of Race and Policy.”
Listen to Figueroa discuss Bayard Rustin on NPR.
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