A Sermon by The Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered by Zoom on Sunday, January 17, 2021
The First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist
This, of course, is Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend and we honor not just King’s legacy but the moral imperatives that remain upon us. In one of our hymns we sing, “What they dreamed be ours to do.” Moreover, we honor not just the drum-majors of the civil rights movement but the foot-soldiers as well. Just as the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia was only made possible by the labors of Stacy Abrams (and, I might add, a great many other mostly women of color warriors for justice) and just as the election of our soon-to-be 46th president was only made possible by the labors of SC Congressman Jim Clyburn (and a great many others of lesser renown), so too the entirety of the modern civil rights movement is indebted to the mostly unsung leadership of Bayard Rustin.
Now, if you go to Wikipedia and look up Rustin, we learn that it was only in 2013 that President Obama gave posthumous recognition to Rustin by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I submit that Rustin’s legacy will outlast those who have received that award more recently…as well as those who have declined it.
And, so it is for all these reasons that I’ve chosen to revisit a sermon I delivered here in 2004.
We begin with a story told by Rustin about one experience he had in 1942. Rustin recalled that he was frequently assaulted by the n-word which I will not be repeating but which you may let sear in your hearing.
Recently I was planning to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.
“Hey, you. You’re supposed to sit in the back seat.”
“Because that’s the law. (People like you) ride in back.”
I said, “My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.”
Angry, but not knowing what to do, he got out and went into the station. He soon came out again, got into his seat, and started off.
This routine was gone through at each stop, but each time nothing came of it. Finally the driver, in desperation, must have phoned ahead, for about thirteen miles north of Nashville I heard sirens approaching. The bus came to an abrupt stop, and a police car and two motorcycles drew up beside us with a flourish. Four policemen got into the bus, consulted shortly with the driver, and came to my seat.
“Get up, you ——- nigger!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Get up, you black ———!”
“I believe that I have a right to sit here,” I said quietly. “If I sit in the back of the bus I am depriving that child—” I pointed to a little white child of five or six— “of the knowledge that there is injustice here, which I believe it is his right to know. It is my sincere conviction that the power of love in the world is the greatest power existing. If you have a greater power, my friend, you may move me.”
How much they understood of what I was trying to tell them I do not know. By this time they were impatient and angry. As I would not move, they began to beat me about the head and shoulders, and I shortly found myself knocked to the floor. Then they dragged me out of the bus and continued to kick and beat me.
Knowing that if I tried to get up or protect myself in the first heat of their anger they would construe it as an attempt to resist and beat me down again, I forced myself to be still and wait for their kicks, one after another. Then I stood up, spreading out my arms parallel to the ground, and said, “There is no need to beat me. I am not resisting you.”
At this three white men, obviously Southerners by their speech, got out of the bus and remonstrated with the police. Indeed, as one of the policemen raised his club to strike me, one of them, a little fellow, caught hold of it and said, “Don’t you do that!” A second policeman raised his club to strike the little man, and I stepped between them, facing the man, and said, “Thank you, but there is no need to do that. I do not wish to fight. I am protected well.”
An elderly gentleman, well dressed and also a Southerner, asked the police where they were taking me.
They said, “Nashville.”
“Don’t worry, son,” he said to me. “I’ll be there to see that you get justice.”
I was put into the back seat of the police car, between two policemen. Two others sat in front. During the thirteen-mile ride to town they called me every conceivable name and said anything they could think of to incite me to violence. I found that I was shaking with nervous strain, and to give myself something to do, I took out a piece of paper and a pencil, and began to write from memory a chapter from one of Paul’s letters.
When I had written a few sentences, the man on my right said, “What’re you writing?” and snatched the paper from my hand. He read it, then crumpled it into a ball and pushed it in my face. The man on the other side gave me a kick.
A moment later I happened to catch the eye of the young policeman in the front seat. He looked away quickly, and I took renewed courage from the realization that he could not meet my eyes because he was aware of the injustice being done. I began to write again, and after a moment I leaned forward and touched him on the shoulder. “My friend,” I said, “how do you spell ‘difference’?”
He spelled it for me—incorrectly—and I wrote it correctly and went on.
When we reached Nashville, a number of policemen were lined up on both sides of the hallway down which I had to pass on my way to the captain’s office. They tossed me from one to another like a volleyball. By the time I reached the office, the lining of my best coat was torn, and I was considerably rumpled. I straightened myself as best I could and went in. They had my bag, and went through it and my papers, finding much of interest, especially in the Christian Century and Fellowship.
Finally the captain said, “Come here, (you).”
I walked directly to him. “What can I do for you?” I asked.
“You,” he said menacingly, “you’re supposed to be scared when you come in here!”
“I am fortified by truth, justice, and Christ,” I said. “There’s no need for me to fear.”
He was flabbergasted and, for a time, completely at a loss for words. Finally he said to another officer, “I believe (this guy’s) crazy!”
They sent me into another room and went into consultation. The wait was long, but after an hour and a half they came for me and I was taken for another ride, across town. At the courthouse, I was taken down the hall to the office of the assistant district attorney, Mr. Ben West. As I got to the door I heard a voice, “Say, you colored fellow, hey!” I looked around and saw the elderly gentleman who had been on the bus.
“I’m here to see that you get justice,” he said.
The assistant district attorney questioned me about my life, the Christian Century, pacifism, and the war for half an hour. Then he asked the police to tell their side of what had happened. They did, stretching the truth a good deal in spots and including several lies for seasoning. Mr. West then asked me to tell my side.
“Gladly,” I said, “and I want you,” turning to the young policeman who had sat in the front seat, “to follow what I say and stop me if I deviate from the truth in the least.”
Holding his eyes with mine, I told the story exactly as it had happened, stopping often to say, “Is that right?” or “Isn’t that what happened?” to the young policeman. During the whole time he never once interrupted me, and when I was through I said, “Did I tell the truth just as it happened?” and he said, “Well….”
Then Mr. West dismissed me, and I was sent to wait alone in a dark room. After an hour, Mr. West came in and said, very kindly, “You may go, Mister Rustin.”
I left the courthouse, believing all the more strongly in the non-violent approach. I am certain that I was addressed as “Mister” (as no Negro is ever addressed in the South), that I was assisted by those three men, and that the elderly gentleman interested himself in my predicament because I had, without fear, faced the four policemen and said, “There is no need to beat me. I offer you no resistance.”
(Writing in 2004, I said….)
Ten days ago, on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, there was a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Massachusetts State House. A thousand or fifteen hundred people were present. We were there to encourage our legislators to defend our venerable and still-progressive Massachusetts Constitution, not to amend or otherwise diminish its protections, most notably of course to defend our Constitution’s guarantee of the right of all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, to enter into the rights and obligations of civil marriage.
I felt so fortunate to be there. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that as life is action and passion, it is required of men and women to share the action and passion of one’s time or risk being judged not to have lived. That evening I felt alive, and especially so when I heard the words of State Representative Byron Rushing. Rushing said—and I can only paraphrase him—that the power of words lies not in the words themselves nor in those who write them. The power of words lies in those who hear them. In the year 1787 in the city of Philadelphia, Rushing said, a group of wealthy, white men drafted the Constitution of the United States and, in its preamble, they wrote “We, the people of these United States, in order to form a more Perfect Union…” And, of course, those wealthy white men in Philadelphia did not in any way intend their Constitution’s rights to include African-Americans, or Native Americans, or women, or poor people…and we may be assured that gay and lesbian people were not prominent in their thinking either. But the power of words lies in those who hear the words and so, when African-Americans heard the words “we the people,” they realized, “we are in the we.” And when women heard the words “we the people” they too realized “we are in the we.” So too Native Americans, and poor Americans, and now as well indeed, gay and lesbian Americans. “We,” they all say, “we are in the we.” Such is the power and glory of the American dream. With a smile, Byron Rushing had all of us chanting “we are in the we.” (Today in 2021, I say, “We were idealists back then…”
I think I could now sit down and say that I’ve already preached a better-than-adequate sermon, but let us turn our attention to another speech, this time the speech delivered in 1963 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the speech in which he proclaimed his dream of a future when all may exult “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
No one doubted what King had in mind: he dreamt of an America free of racial prejudice, free of Jim Crow. But, again, the power of words lies not in the words themselves nor in those who speak them. The power of words lies in those who hear them; and oddly and unexpectedly King’s words were heard not only by African Americans but still and also by women and by poor people, and also by disabled people, and yet again by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who too yearned to be free at last but who, again, figured not prominently in King’s thinking at the time. Thus, for the last forty years, issues affecting the rights and freedoms of all these people so often marginalized at the edges of the American dream have dominated our national consciousness and, again, the power of words lies not in the words themselves nor in those who speak the words but in those, as the Bible says, who have ears to hear.
Today I want you to hear and celebrate the name of Bayard Rustin. He was a Christian, a Quaker, a Gandhian, a fighting pacifist, a democratic socialist, one of the chief strategists of the civil rights movement; he was an organizer, an intellectual, an internationalist; and he was a gay man, a “known homosexual.” Bayard Rustin was the one person most responsible for introducing the principle of nonviolence to the American civil rights movement; he was the chief organizer of the 1963 march on Washington; he had an encompassing view of social change. He was a man who changed history but, largely because he was gay, Bayard Rustin was denied the limelight, kept in the shadows—denied his place in history—and who now is only beginning to receive the appreciation and still-relevant consideration he is due.
And just to whet your appetite, there are some First Parish connections: As a conscientious objector to the Second World War, Bayard Rustin was in federal prison with our parishioner Betty Hefner’s husband Bill and, subsequently, on a number of occasions Betty welcomed Rustin into their home. (Speaking today, in 2021, I want to shout out to Betty who turned 104 last week. I spoke with her on the phone…she’s got all her marbles…and she sends greetings to all of you.) Much later, Rustin and Jack Mendelsohn traveled together to the Dominican Republic where they monitored elections. And our parishioner Earl Anderson (Earl was, I believe the first African-American resident at Carleton-Willard) and he knew Rustin when Earl was a teacher in New York and Rustin was with the American Federation of Teachers.
I’ll give you a capsule biography but my intent, as ever, is to agitate, inspire, and embolden you to embody the courage of your convictions and contradictions – whatever they may be – and for you to more fully be the person you are and the person you yet may become. This is a sermon about the religious value of freedom which is an instrumental and not a terminal value. Freedom is not an end in itself but it is a sacred means toward accomplishing noble ends: when we are able to be fully ourselves – as gay, straight, abled, disabled, old, young, in-between, as skeptics or people of faith, recognizing and respecting differences of gender, orientation, theology, politics and all the rest – when fully we are able to be ourselves, we can encounter one another authentically and from that creative interchange we will change the world.
Bayard Rustin had a bunch of beauteous contradictions.
He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912, the son of his teenage sister (who had been raped). Raised by his Quaker grandmother, he excelled in academics, sports, and singing. For a while, he attended Wilberforce University, but after two years was forced to drop out. He later claimed that he was asked to leave because he refused to join ROTC but an alternate explanation is that he fell in love with the son of the college president.
As a teenager, he discussed his sexuality with his grandmother. “(I) never said, ‘You know, I’m gay.’ I told her I enjoyed being with guys when I joined the parties for dating. And she said, ‘Is that what you really enjoy?’ I said, ‘Yes, I think I do.’ Her reply was, ‘Then I suppose that’s what you need to do.’ (I) never felt it necessary to do a great deal of pretending. And I never had feelings of guilt.’”
He went on to Cheney State Teacher’s College but when administrators learned of his sexuality, he was told “to get the hell out.”
Strikingly handsome, just over 6 feet tall, he was physically affectionate – he thought nothing of walking hand-in-hand in public with other men – and when combined with an almost monarchical dignity, an erudition and an adopted British accent that caused many to think he must have been born in Europe or the Caribbean, well, Bayard Rustin was quite wonderfully out there. For that, as well, he suffered greatly: frequently arrested, beaten, slandered, blackmailed; and still he walked tall.
In 1937, he moved to New York City to attend the City College of New York but where he could also inhale the last days of the Harlem Renaissance and travel in thriving gay circles. For a while, he sang professionally with legendary folksinger Josh White, with Paul Robeson, and with Leadbelly.
Profoundly affected by Quaker ideals, he was also drawn to peace and justice causes where he quickly rose to top leadership positions. In those days, the Communists were almost the only ones who unabashedly made common cause with African Americans. Even the NAACP was slow to support causes like that of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black youth who were sentenced to death on false allegations of rape. So Rustin joined the Young Communist League, which was engaged in civil rights issues, fighting racial discrimination in the U.S. military, and opposing intervention in Europe.
Of course, everything changed with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The Communists abandoned their interest in peace and civil rights; and Rustin quit the YCL in protest. As if being an uppity black, gay, pacifist Quaker wasn’t enough, his three years as a Communist dogged him the rest of his life.
The most powerful black union of the time was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, headed by A. Philip Randolph who was committed not only to civil rights but to economic justice. Rustin became his most trusted lieutenant and together they protested segregation in the military and in defense industries. When, fearing to offend the Roosevelt Administration, Randolph dropped plans for a massive march on Washington by African Americans, Rustin broke with Randolph and affiliated with the growing pacifist movement.
So affected are we by the victor’s history of “the good war” and “America’s greatest generation,” I think it is difficult for us to grasp the pacifist movement of that time. To be sure there were head-in-the-sand isolationists but there were also those who, remembering both the senseless slaughter of the First World War and inspired by the fighting pacifism of Gandhi and others, foresaw other means of stopping tyrants and securing peace with justice. War is, we may be assured, the least creative and effective means of conflict resolution, and that with the most uncertain long-term outcome. War does have its self-perpetuating logic and its victors, who suffer losses nearly as grievous as those of its losers, justly demand honor. Those who not only imagine but hard-headedly strategize wars’ alternatives, also deserve honor. However different was Rustin from our customary war heroes, he and those like him may also be ranked among democracy’s heroes.
Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group of Christian pacifists, with which he was affiliated the rest of his life. A.J. Muste was the group’s head, and together they were truly fighting pacifists. Old-style pacifists were a rather armchair Brahmin lot; Muste and Rustin, however, were religiously-committed non-violent resisters whose methodology was “social dislocation and creative troublemaking.” A pacifist must necessarily be a revolutionary, committed not just to ending war but to transforming society. Racial justice was their foremost but not their only issue.
In 1943, Rustin refused not only induction into the military but CO status as well, and this landed him a three-year federal prison sentence in Ashland, Kentucky. Now listen to this: at the time, one out of every six federal prisoners was imprisoned for saying no to war. Many of these men were highly educated, religiously and politically committed – not the sort of prisoners that prison officials were ready for. And it was in Ashland that Bayard Rustin came to know Betty’s husband Bill. The dining facilities in Ashland were racially segregated. Not when Bayard and Bill were finished with them. Prisoners’ access to mail and outside contact was restricted and censored. Not when Bayard and Bill were finished with them. Imagine! One might think the prisoners were at the mercy of the prison, but no: it was the prisoners who freed the prison from prejudice.
The price, of course, was high: Rustin was frequently beaten and his sexuality compounded matters. Even before imprisonment, the post-sentence report advised that “he attends theatres, concerts, visits art galleries, models clay” – clear signs of gender inversion and homosexuality. From Ashland, Rustin was transferred to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where he persisted in resistance and, to the relief of prison administrators, was released in 1946.
In the late 40’s and early 50’s, Rustin traveled the country, agitating against war, against nuclear arms, against European imperialism in Africa, and always against racism. In 1947, Rustin organized the “Journey of Reconciliation,” in which integrated groups challenged the segregation of buses and trains across the South – a forerunner of the famous freedom riders. In North Carolina he was sentenced to a chain gang for his participation. He was imprisoned more than 20 times during his life. His experiences, however, proved that non-violent resistance worked: it exposed injustice, shamed authorities and inspired allies across color lines.
In 1955, Rustin went to Montgomery, Alabama where 26-year-old Martin Luther King was boycotting the segregated buses. Ushered into King’s home, Rustin was disturbed to find guns in the living room. King had not yet embraced nonviolence. King and his associates were unsophisticated in their methods, and it was under Rustin’s tutelage that they were introduced to a comprehensive theology, theory, strategy and tactics of nonviolence.
King and his associates didn’t know what to think of Rustin – Rustin later said that he doubted that King had ever before known an openly gay man – but Rustin was so well organized, so articulate, so persuasive, so experienced, so unified in head and heart, and so effective that they came to rely upon Rustin as the master strategist of the civil rights movement.
After being criticized by Adam Clayton Powell for associating with a known homosexual, King disassociated with Rustin publicly but continued to rely upon him privately.
Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King’s advisers objected to King being late in the afternoon program but it was Rustin who knew that nobody would remember anything that happened after King spoke. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, of course, denounced Rustin as a communist and, again, a known homosexual.
And it is significant that it was a march for jobs and freedom. Rustin was the one who enlarged the civil rights movement into a poor people’s campaign, and a movement that encompassed opposition to war and freedom struggles around the world. Free at last, free at last…Rustin would not thank God almighty until all are free at last.
Rustin campaigned for civil rights, for economic rights, for human rights. Always he believed in building coalitions; hence he split from the black power movement and was often denounced from left and right. Utterly principled and with a breadth of vision, he was an internationalist traveling the world, calling attention to refugees in southeast Asia and Haiti, protesting apartheid in South Africa, advocating for Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and lending support to emerging democracies everywhere. And in the 1980’s, he at last felt free enough to also become outspoken on gay rights. These are his words:
“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new (n-word again) are gays… Indeed, if you want to know whether today people believe in democracy if you want to know whether they are true democrats, if you want to know whether they are human rights activists, the question to ask is, ‘What about gay people?’” But, now listen to this: “Therefore, I would like to be very hard with the gay community, not for the sake of being hard, but to make clear that, because we stand in the center of progress toward democracy, we have a terrifying responsibility to the whole society… (the) gay community cannot work for justice for itself alone. Unless the community fights for all, it is fighting for nobody, least of all for itself…. (Gay) people should recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”
The power of words lies not in the words themselves nor in those who speak the words. The power of words lies in those who hear the words. So too, though it is of great historical interest that we know the name of Bayard Rustin, the meaning and power of a life is not in the life of the woman or man who lived the life. A life’s meaning and power lies in those whose lives are affected, inspired, influenced and changed. Bayard Rustin’s life may be measured by what we make of it; all our lives may be measured by those values and loyalties and commitments and actions that, after us, live on.
Bayard Rustin lived the last years of his life tirelessly active and accompanied by his long-time partner Walter Naegle. Together they were known as fun-loving, mischievous, artistic, and as art collectors who sometimes found museum-quality pieces in New York City trash. Sometimes called the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement, Rustin died in 1987. His memorial service was conducted at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of New York.
Again, it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that as life is action and passion, it is required of men and women to share the action and passion of one’s time or risk being judged not to have lived. Bayard Rustin truly lived. (In the testing, challenging, hopeful, auspicious days soon to come) so also may we live.