Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Black Gay Quaker

I blogged last week about how deeply moved I felt when I heard the recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1958 address to the FGC gathering of Quakers. Today over lunch with Lynn, a Friend from Hartford Meeting, I shared my notes from the talk and felt inspired even more. Something else stirred; the reminder that King had as a mentor in his life a man named Bayard Rustin. In fact, Rustin wrote many of King’s speeches in the late 1950’s. I spent the afternoon in the garden re-reading two books I have about Rustin.

Bayard Rustin is one of the most important figures of the 20th century. A Quaker, an African-American and openly gay, he served as an architect and inspiration for the direction of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. In fact, he was already writing about racial equality and non-violence as early as 1942 in his article The Negro and Non-Violence. He stated,

Nonviolence as a method has within it the demand for terrible sacrifice and long suffering, but, as Gandhi has said, “freedom does not drop from the sky.” One has to struggle and be willing to die for it. J. Holmes Smith has indicated that he looks to the American Negro to assist in developing, along with the people of India, a new dynamic force for the solution of conflict that not merely will free these oppressed people but will set an example that may be the first step in freeing the world. (page nine of Time on Two Crosses—The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin.)

Rustin went on to practice what he preached by resisting the draft during World War II, thus enduring a prison sentence of nearly two years (and used his time in prison to address inequities towards the non-white inmates.)

Starting in the mid-1930’s Rustin used non-violent strategies to protest war and nuclear weapons. He learned directly from Gandhi’s people in India and soon applied his training and experience to addressing racial inequality and the oppression of African-Americans.

In 1947 a federal ruling struck down segregated interstate travel. Rustin and others wanted to test the ruling, so they organized an interracial group of men to travel by public buses and trains in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. They challenged the segregation laws still practiced in those areas. Arrests took place on six different occasions with a total of 12 of the riders arrested. Rustin wrote about the experience,

Without exception those arrested behaved in a nonviolent fashion. They acted without fear, spoke quietly and firmly, showing great consideration for the police and bus drivers, and repeatedly pointed to the fact that they expected the police to do their duty as they saw it. We cannot overemphasize the necessity for this courteous and intelligent conduct while breaking with the caste system. (page 15)

Rustin first met Dr. King during the bus boycotts of Montgomery, AL in 1955, shortly after King’s house had been bombed. In his well-written biography, Lost Prophet—The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, John D’Emilio reveals the importance of Rustin’s input into Dr. King’s non-violent work.

From the start, Rustin communicated to King not only the efficacy and moral value of nonviolence, but the special responsibility of leaders to model it fully (page 231).

According to D’Emilio, King had only a “passing acquaintance with the philosophy and career of Gandhi…Rustin initiated the process that transformed King into the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the twentieth century.” (page 231)

King had to learn non-violence from somewhere. He was in his late 20’s when he arrived in Montgomery. He was on his own for the first time, which poignantly comes through in his 1958 FGC address. His father was not going to be able to help him all the way from Atlanta. King needed to learn a lot and quickly. Rustin came to him seasoned in non-violence theory and practice.

To Rustin, efforts by King’s followers or by historians to present King as a fully developed Gandhian at the start of the boycott were a disservice to the man. “He had not been prepared for [the job] either tactically, strategically, or in his understanding of nonviolence,” Rustin emphatically told an interviewer. “The glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussion which he had in the process of carrying on the protest, not that, in some way, college professors who had read Gandhi had prepared him in advance. This is just a hoax.” Arriving in Montgomery a week after Rustin, Glenn Smiley, (another long-time peace activist from NYC), confirmed Rustin’s evaluation. About Gandhian nonviolence, Smiley insisted, King “knew nothing.” (pages 230, 231)

Not only did Rustin help King to understand the principles of non-violence and the application to the current situation, he began to ghostwrite speeches and articles for King starting in 1955. (see Rustin standing behind King during the March on Washington, which Rustin organized) The first article written by Rustin and ascribed to King appeared in April of that year. According to D’Emilio:

(Rustin) highlighted the messages that he believed had the most strategic value: that the boycott signaled the birth of a “new Negro” and a “revolutionary change in the Negro’s evaluation of himself”; that “economics is part of our struggle”; that that the boycotters had discovered “a new and powerful weapon—non-violent resistance.” (page 239)

20 years older than King, Rustin spoke like a teacher to a pupil in his letters to the young civil rights’ leader (page 241) and also helped King see connections to international politics and economics affecting all poor people.

So here comes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the annual gathering of Quakers in summer 1958. He gives an amazing, profound, and crystal clear message about the struggle for racial equality and the need to use non-violent methods along with connections to international post-colonial struggles and the economy. The passion with which King speaks tells me the message comes from his heart, but I believe much of it came from Rustin’s pen like many of King’s other speeches during this time period–especially because in this case King spoke to Rustin’s own people, the Quakers.

You can purchase a printed version of the speech or an audio tape here, but I want to share from the notes I took as I listened to the speech at FGC a week ago. In the work that I do around the Ex-Gay Movement and the full liberation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the US and elsewhere, I can hear critical messages for us in King’s (and Rustin’s) message. (King used the term Negro throughout. I will just use “people” in my notes)

  • The Bible has not been properly interpreted. There is a problem with a literal reading, and as a result people were taught they were inferior. They believed this and lost faith in themselves. It has left scars on the soul. People need to take a fresh look at themselves. God loves all his children; each one is made in his image. A new person has come to being which creates the present crisis. Humans with dignity struggle for freedom and human dignity, but privileged people won’t easily give it up.
  • How will the Struggle be Waged? Non-violence. Physical violence and hatred (the twins of Western materialism) only achieve victory, not peace.
  • Non-violence is not for cowards.
  • It does not seek to defeat and humiliate opponents. Instead it seeks to make friends and awaken a sense of shame over injustice.
  • We do not go after individuals, rather the evil systems that victimizes both the oppressed and the oppressor.
  • The non-violent resister accepts suffering without retaliation. Meet physical violence with what Gandhi called Soulforce. We still love you.
  • We avoid internal violence of spirit. We refuse to hate our opponent. An e”ye for an eye” leaves everyone blind.
  • This is not sentimental love, but agape, a love that offers creative understanding and seeks nothing in return. We love them because God loves them. Love your enemies—this transforms the soul of your opponent.
  • We have faith in the future believing the universe is on the side of justice. No lie can live forever.

I stepped out of the talk stirred, shaken, challenged, convicted, and moved deeply in regards to the work that I seek to do. What thrills me is that not only did King moved me, but also the Black gay Quaker, Bayard Rustin, who shaped those words in King’s life and for all of us to hear.

BOOKS
Time on Two Crosses—The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin
Lost Prophet—The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
To see VIDEO of Bayard in action go here.
William D. Lindsey, a Quaker who writes for the blog Bilgrimage, also has a rich post about Rustin with lots of detailed info outlining various influences in Rustin’s life including Methodism.

This post has 8 Comments

  1. Joe Brummer on July 7, 2008 at 1:12 am Reply

    Peterson,
    You inspire me and reinstate hope for me that their are people working for peace. You also already know I support with all my heart this message of nonviolence.

    -Peace and love
    Joe

  2. Peterson Toscano on July 7, 2008 at 1:22 am Reply

    Joe, thanks. I had a feeling you would like this post. thanks for all the support. This speech will affect me in the work I do, no doubt.

  3. nonsequitur on July 7, 2008 at 2:52 am Reply

    Dang it Peterson, I already have too much to do and your are inspiring me to pick up Time On Two Crosses again and pick up where I left off before life distracted me with other concerns… not a bad thing I suppose. Great post!

  4. Gil S on July 7, 2008 at 6:17 am Reply

    Thanks Peterson for a great and inspiring post. I had never heard of Bayard Rustin and will now go and try to find out more about him. What were the books about him that you mentioned?

    All the best
    Gil

  5. Peterson Toscano on July 7, 2008 at 1:20 pm Reply

    nonsequitor, sorry about that (not really :-P)

    gill, thanks for reading. I have the links posted above.

  6. Eileen Flanagan on July 8, 2008 at 11:25 am Reply

    Rustin is one of my heros. I’m glad you are letting others know about him. Also, thanks for the great performance Thursday night at Gathering. I keep thinking about the “vegan who drives a hummer line” as I drive my newly purchased Prius to pick up some cheese!

  7. paul on July 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm Reply

    wow,
    what a great post. Thank you Peterson.

  8. William D. Lindsey on July 9, 2008 at 4:14 pm Reply

    Peterson, thank you for linking to my posting about Bayard Rustin. As it notes, I believe it was you who first drew my attention to Bayard Rustin. I find your blog constantly inspiring.

    One slight correction: I’m not actually a Quaker, though I have been grateful to my local Quaker community for providing a spiritual home for me when I have gone to meeting there. I’m an alienated Catholic theologian with a varied career of teaching and doing administrative work in both Catholic and Methodist colleges.

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