‘Troublemaker’ inspires new generation of activists

Bayard Rustin biography brings civil-rights hero's story to young readers

Madison author Jacqueline Houtman

The March on Washington in August 1963 is best known as the scene for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech, a touchstone of the civil rights movement in the 1960s: “I have a dream…”

Far less known is the man credited with helping organize that daylong event more than a half-century ago — and with contributing much more to human rights, in struggles for racial justice, in a commitment to peace and nonviolence, in opposition to war and militarism, and as a quiet pioneer in what would become the campaign for gay rights: Bayard Rustin. 

“Bayard Rustin was one of the most influential civil rights leaders, but very few people know his name,” explains a newly republished biography for middle school students.

The book, Troublemaker for Justice, is a collaboration by Madison author Jacqueline Houtman; Walter Naegle, who was Rustin’s partner in the last decade of the civil rights leader’s life; and Michael Long, a college professor of religious studies and peace studies.  

For Houtman, who has primarily written about science, the opportunity to work on the book touched her personally. Like Rustin, she is a Quaker.

The cover of the republished book Troublemaker for Justice, a biography of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin written for middle school readers.

“I knew about him,” she says. “He’s well respected among Quakers.” Even so, in writing the book, including building on the research of her collaborators, she learned much more about Rustin’s life. 

The book was previously published by a small press associated with the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, the formal name for the Christian denomination. This month, it was republished by City Lights Books in San Francisco. 

Raised by grandparents

Born when his mother, Florence, was 19 and unwed, Bayard Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pa., under the care of her parents — his grandparents. His grandmother, Julia, had been raised in the Quaker tradition, but after marrying her husband, Janifer, joined the African Methodist Episcopal church. 

His grandmother’s Quaker upbringing and her later participation in the AME church “had convinced her that every person was a valuable member of the human family and had equal worth and dignity,” Houtman writes. “She told Bayard that it was everyone’s duty ‘to treat each person as a complete human being,’ not as an inferior, unworthy of respect.”

Rustin grew up to live out his grandmother’s beliefs in pacifism and nonviolence, central principles of the Quaker faith. The book charts his life from childhood through the March on Washington. 

In high school he excelled academically and as an athlete while also showing a spirit of activism, resisting segregation in the lodgings where the track team stayed and getting arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a local movie theater.

In college in the early 1930s, Rustin came to understand that he was sexually and romantically attracted to men, in an era when doctors labeled homosexuality a mental illness and the government labeled it a crime.  

“But Bayard did not consider his sexual orientation to be sick, sinful, or criminal,” Houtman writes. “He accepted it as a natural part of his personality and refused to hide it or feel ashamed about it. He was grateful that the most important person in his life, his grandmother Julia, did not belittle or condemn his attraction to men.”

Life of activism

In the years that followed, Rustin, increasingly committed to the Quaker faith and its pacifist ideals, devoted his life to activism. He became a student of nonviolent, direct action as it was being employed by Mahatma Gandhi in India’s campaign for independence. And he became a protege of the African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph.

When he was drafted in World War II and refused to report for an Army physical, he was sent to prison, where he campaigned to integrate the segregated prison system. After the war he campaigned against Jim Crow laws and against nuclear weapons. During the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama he advised King and stressed the importance of nonviolence.

By the early 1960s, Rustin had been shunned by some civil rights leaders, both because of a past association with communism and because of an arrest on allegations of homosexual activity. When his mentor Randolph conceived of the 1963 march and subsequently was named director, however, Randolph chose Rustin as his deputy. 

Lessons to remember

One of the lessons the book seeks to impart is the role of unsung activists — “that there were a lot of people involved in the civil rights movement, and in other movements for social justice, that you don’t hear about, but that they used their gifts as they could to make a difference,” says Houtman. 

Another is that Rustin embraced an expansive view of human rights, embracing  the Quaker concept of “God in everyone.” “He was fighting for . . . the rights of refugees, for the labor movement, for Jews, in anti-war and anti-nuclear-weapons protests,” Houtman says.

“His influence was everywhere. He didn’t see civil rights as different from any other form of human rights,” she adds. “Discrimination was discriminaiton, no matter who was affected by it.”

The contemporary market for books aimed at middle-school and older readers is increasingly open to telling stories about important and sensitive social issues, Houtman says. And she considers Rustin’s story especially relevant now. 

“We need him today more than ever,” she says. “There’s so much injustice in this world. Not only was he just adamant about how he felt about injustice — but he was an extremely good strategist and organizer.”

She sees his spirit in a new generation of young activists, from the high school students in Parkland, Fla., who launched a new movement against gun violence following the 2018 mass shooting there, to the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg

“It warms my heart to see young people realizing they can have a voice and they can make a difference in this world,” Houtman says. “Bayard would have loved to see that.” 

Author Jacqueline Houtman will speak about her book, Troublemaker for Justice: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 7 p.m. at Mystery to Me Bookstore, 1863 Monroe Street, Madison. For more information, visit: https://www.mysterytomebooks.com/events

 

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn joins the Wisconsin Examiner after 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, and The Progressive, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. His work has also appeared in other national publications including Politico, The Washington Monthly, and The American Lawyer.

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