In a week’s time, thousands of LGBT and straight ally community members will gather in Washington, D.C., for Equality Across America’s National Equality March. They hope their march, rally, training sessions and other activities will inspire a new wave of grassroots activism in all 435 Congressional districts across the nation.
They have big shoes to fill, living and working in the legacy of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the deputy director of the famed 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom.
Rustin was more than an activist for African-American rights and equality. Like any true progressive, he championed the rights of the working class and stood up as a conscientious objector against the drafts of World War II and Vietnam.
His life’s work landed him in an awful lot of trouble. He butted heads with other African-American and progressive leaders. He fought tooth and nail to live his life honestly and openly, despite attempts to closet him. He worked closely with King and may well have taught the non-violent leader many of the organizing principles that would land King an eternal place among our nation’s most treasured leaders and visionaries.
Like other revolutionaries of his time, Rustin wasn’t afraid to put his body and life on the line. He served jail time for organizing against the draft and for breaking segregation laws. And it was in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Rustin took a stand and forever changed our state.
In 1947, Rustin found himself working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and organizing the first “Freedom Rides” through the South. Leaving Washington, D.C., in April, the Journey of Reconciliation took 16 white and black activists through Virginia and North Carolina. Along the way, they challenged segregation laws preventing African-Americans from sitting in the front of buses. One of their stops was small town Chapel Hill.
“Liberal.” That’s the word that pops into many folks’ minds when they think of the tiny college town made famous by its landmark state university. Longtime North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms once called the city a zoo and suggested fencing it off. But the Chapel Hill we know today is a far cry from the town that existed in the Jim Crow-era South.
Three days after their journey began, Rustin and and five other colleagues — totaling three white, three black — attempted sitting together at the front of a Chapel Hill bus. The driver refused to carry them as passengers and forcibly removed them from the vehicle. Rustin and three of his fellow activists were arrested for violating local segregation laws.
They soon posted bail and were released. Charles Jones, a white pastor and a Fellowship of Reconciliation supporter, welcomed the riders in his nearby home. For a while, they had peace. But white taxi drivers who’d witnessed the events in downtown Chapel Hill made their way to Jones’ home.
According to writer Jerald E. Podair, the taxi driver mob threw rocks through windows and threatened to burn the house down. They might have been successful if not for the arrival of town police and a group of white university students. Rustin and his fellow journeymen made their way to safety in Greensboro, nearly an hour away.
Rustin was ultimately convicted of violating the segregation laws and was sentenced to 22 days hard labor on a prison chain gang in Roxboro, N.C. Unsurprisingly, none of the white taxi drivers were ever arrested or charged.
After the grueling, inhumane sentence, the Journey for Reconciliation continued. When Rustin returned to his home in New York City, he penned “Twenty Two Days on a Chain Gang,” a report to the Fellowship which was later published by the New York Post and Baltimore Afro-American. The article prompted outrage and backlash for North Carolina’s prison officials. With no other choice but reform, officials abolished their system of convict labor.
Rustin would go on to work with famed advocate A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other progressive leaders. He would travel the globe, working for non-violent change through civil disobedience.
Even into his 70s, Rustin continued his push for radical change. In 1984, he was arrested during a demonstration at Yale University, where he sided with striking clerical workers. In 1987, Rustin, 75, passed away after returning from a mission in Haiti.
What would North Carolina look like without Rustin’s visionary leadership? Exactly how long would the antiquated chain gang and prison labor system continue to operate without his “Twenty Two” days report? Would the progress of Civil Rights advances have been different without the Journey of Reconciliation’s stop in Chapel Hill? What does the story of our state’s racist, oppressive past say about our tendency and willingness to gloss over our history with the oft-repeated meme that we were a racially tolerant state?
These are all questions that are interesting and at the same time unanswerable. History is often a good teacher. So, we’re faced with questions that do have answers. What have we learned from Rustin? What can we continue to learn from him?