What are we willing to do for what we believe in? What are we willing to risk?
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We mostly know of this event because of the “speech” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was truly one of the great talks by any American — ever. Yet that great man’s history-making was only made possible by the hard work of thousands of unsung and unacknowledged common folks.
No one was more instrumental to the success of the march and rally than Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was an early convert to the civil rights movement. Like many brave men and women of his generation, he chose pacifism as his weapon to battle the insidious violence of the Ku Klux Klan. To say his life was on the line is no mere rhetorical statement. Long before al-Qaeda, the Klan was America’s most bloodthirsty terrorist organization; the rope was their instrument of terror, as were the shotgun and rifle.
All watched the cowardly burning of scores of churches that they claimed as their crowning glory. Sadly, these bombings pale in comparison to their “courageous” slaughter of four innocent girls at church. It takes "real men" to conduct such savagery while hiding behind white sheets. Perhaps the sheets should have been yellow to better match the stripes down their backs.
To confront the evil of the Klan and the institutional racism of the country, Ruskin helped Dr. King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. He was one of the main organizers of the March on Washington and other iconic moments of our time. He was also a mentor to Dr. King, introducing him to the teachings of Gandhi.
Yet there is more to this brave man. He not only had to show incredible courage against the Klan, but he had to find the strength within himself to face down prejudices within his own communities — the African-American community and the justice seeking community.
Rustin was a gay man. Somehow, this man found the physical courage to not only stand against the Klan, but perhaps the harder struggle to expose himself to ridicule and hatred to those he knew and lived with, who not only did not understand him but also feared him.
I often wonder if I would have had his courage. Rustin left his comfort zone to battle violent evil, knowing he was risking the condemnation of many of his friends and fellow comrades. No one made him step forward. This simple man simply could not remain silent or inactive in the face of evil. His quiet demeanor and rock-solid strength stood in sharp contrast to child killers and church burners who hid behind rags, and to a society who judged a man by the person he loved. I’m not sure there is a better definition of bravery than this.
Thank you, Mr. Rustin, for all you did. You stand as an equal with one of our country’s great men, and an example to all Americans to not stand idly by while injustice stalks the land.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.