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Bayard Rustin's Legacy: West Chester's Civil Rights Hero

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“Martin Luther King may have told us about his dream, but Bayard Rustin built the platform on which King stood.”

From an early age, Bill Scott was “hooked on Kennedy,” even attending JFK’s inauguration on his own at 15. Sympathetic with the Civil Rights Movement, the Conestoga High School graduate and Rutgers University student set out from home on Aug. 28, 1963, on a Presbyterian Interracial Council bus headed to the March on Washington.

Once Scott’s bus crossed the Maryland line, it joined a sea of others. “Going down, it was a mixed crowd, but mostly what we would’ve called colored folks or Negroes. We didn’t have the word black then,” recalls Scott, a onetime West Chester borough councilman who is now 68. “At one pit stop, someone said, ‘What if they don’t let us in?’ Another said, ‘Not today.’ There was no belligerence—just confidence. Everyone was cheerful, upbeat and excited. They understood that this was a significant thing.”

There was also the one face Scott can never erase from his memory. In slowed traffic, he made eye contact with a trucker, who tried to spit on his bus window. “It didn’t make it,” he recalls. “His window was a third of the way up, so he gobbed all over his own window. It was all I could do to stop laughing.”

Once in D.C., the parade of buses made its way down blocks of brownstones inhabited by blacks, who were hanging out of their windows, sitting on steps, waving, and offering glasses of water. “It was liberating for that population, and they were reciprocating,” Scott says.

As soon as he got there, Scott left his bus group and “weaseled” his way up front. He was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for King’s speech and other festivities, including performances by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. The 18-year-old college sophomore used his 35 mm Zeiss Ikon camera (a gift to his father after 35 years of service at Gulf Oil) to shoot 24 high-quality pictures. “I’m not saying that I could touch King, but I was within 15 feet,” he says. “When he spoke about having his dream, I was right there.”

After King spoke, Scott went to shake his hand, but the two sergeants at arms (on either side of King in every image from that day) made it clear that no one was to touch King. “[Bayard] Rustin was there, and he was getting a lot of hype,” says Scott. “I remember my dad telling me that he was from West Chester, just down the road from us. He was jumping all around. He was all over the place. He was palpably in charge. Martin Luther King may have told us about his dream, but Bayard Rustin built the platform on which King stood.”
 

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Scott did shake Rustin’s hand. He also got his autograph—and the signatures of Cecil B. Moore and others—on his event program. It’s now a prized possession, along with his bus ticket and other keepsakes from that day. “Others were filled with smiles, but he was all business,” says Scott of Rustin’s demeanor.On the way home, Scott’s bus was immersed in song—mostly spirituals. Night had fallen, and once back in West Philadelphia, Scott’s father was behind schedule. The organizing pastor wouldn’t leave until Scott was safely picked up.

A year later, Rustin spoke at Rutgers, where he broke out into two verses of the African-American spiritual, “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” at the end of the talk. Scott got his autograph again. In 2012, Scott’s treasured artifacts found their way into an exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society, celebrating the centennial of Rustin’s birth.

Rev. Anderson Porter was appointed to supervise two busloads of supporters from West Chester for the NAACP. Now 82, he lives in West Philadelphia and is pastor of Wissinoming Presbyterian Church. Most rewarding, he says, was the friendship he developed with Rustin. “He really was the architect,” says Porter. “What many people miss about the march is that the primary purpose was the creation of jobs and gaining entry into the workplace, so blacks wouldn’t continue to be the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Then, there were never any new jobs for blacks—even the traditional black jobs were being taken by whites. Without the march, all blacks were really a lost ball in high weeds. We would’ve disappeared.”

Rustin, says Porter, was “like a prophet, really. He could see into the future. But like a lot of incredible history, it gets placed on the back burner.”

As for his role, Porter says he never tried to elevate himself with his involvement. He was simply dedicated to the cause. “I was not the most historical person in the world, but I was a dedicated person,” he says.

“Martin Luther King may have told us about his dream, but Bayard Rustin built the platform on which King stood.”

Perhaps the most persecuted activist in this nation’s history because of his color, antiwar pacifism and openly gay sexual persuasion, Bayard Rustin  was born in West Chester in 1912. Though largely uncelebrated for years, he is now more widely recognized as the one who orchestrated the March on Washington. The event was an epic exclamation point for the Civil Rights Movement and the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

For various reasons, Rustin and King had an on-and-off relationship—but one that was most definitely on in the months leading up to the march, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. CNN and the BBC are airing programs. Books are due out. And on May 18, Rustin—who passed away in 1987—was given an honorary doctoral degree at Cheyney University’s commencement.

“Cheyney is a beautiful campus, with a real community feel, small and intimate,” says Walter Naegle, the executor of Rustin’s estate and his life partner. “I was on the dais, in a robe, and accepted the degree and doctoral hood for Bayard.”

At his namesake high school in West Chester, ninth-grade social studies classes have compared King’s Rustin-inspired nonviolent movement to the efforts of India’s Mahatma Gandhi. At the start of the coming school year, art classes will display a collage featuring the March on Washington and Rustin.
 

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For decades, Rustin “labored in virtual invisibility behind the major players of the Civil Rights Movement,” writes civil rights scholar Michael G. Long.

Among the worst black spots were his ties to communists and a 1953 arrest for vagrancy and lewd behavior. U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. even tried to undermine the movement by threatening to tell the world that King was having a homosexual affair with Rustin, who was among his group of advisers at the time.

One constant Rustin backer was labor leader A. Philip Randolph. “Although King and other civil rights leaders had shunned him after the Powell imbroglio, Randolph pulled him even closer than before,” Long points out.

The two met regularly and continued to advance the cause for equality. According to Rustin’s later recollection, he and Powell came up with the idea for the March on Washington at the end of 1962. Rustin appointed three assistants—Tom Kahn, Norman Hill and Rachelle Horowitz—to organize the two-day event that history now celebrates. A major intent of the demonstration was to spur the creation of more jobs for all Americans.

Rustin envisioned  a “massive effort involving coordinated participation by all progressive sectors of the liberal, labor, religious and Negro communities. Only such an all-embracing effort can call for a broad national governmental action on a scale adequate to meet the problem of unemployment, especially as it relates to minority groups.” The date of the march was pinned to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which the organizers wrote “failed to bring real freedom for the Negro.”

By 1963, King had reintegrated Rustin into the movement’s leadership ranks. Rustin was too well-connected, politically and personally, and too influential behind closed doors. Long suggests that King was reluctantly drawn into the march after the Birmingham, Ala., campaign and its images of dogs and water hoses turned on protesting children.

Still, there was concern that if Rustin became the march’s director, his arrest in Pasadena, Calif., would be republicized and stunt momentum. NAACP president Roy Wilkins declared that Rustin had “too many scars.”

In the end, Randolph became director, and he selected his own deputy—Rustin, who was really the man in charge. King offered support but had reservations. Meanwhile, Sen. Strom Thurmond painted Rustin as a communist and a pervert.

Randolph defended Rustin and reaffirmed his confidence in his character, integrity and “extraordinary ability.” Two days later, Rustin issued his own statement: “Sen. Thurmond’s remarks were a disgrace to the United States Senate and a measure of the desperation of the segregationist cause.”

The Kennedy Administration had its own concerns about the March on Washington, believing that, if any violence broke out, it would be a setback for pending civil rights legislation. There was no violence, however, and King and Rustin stepped into immortality.