Vital Friends: What Bayard Rustin’s Life and Activism Can Teach Us About Finding Common Ground

We are living in a time of intense division, and many Friends may be wondering how it is possible to “answer that of God” in people whose beliefs are so different from our own. Fortunately, there is one man whose work helped inspire cooperation and compassion across communities that we can turn to for inspiration – Bayard Rustin. Here are a few lessons from his career in nonviolent activism that can help bridge the divide:

Approach advocacy as an ongoing learning process. Being raised with Quaker values by his maternal grandparents, he continuously sought out opportunities to hone his skills as an advocate for human rights. He traveled to India in 1948 to attend a conference on pacifism, and there he was inspired by the nonviolent strategies used by Mahatma Gandhi and his supporters. Bayard put those lessons into practice back in the United States, and he is credited with introducing them to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After the civil rights movement, he adapted his nonviolent activism to support labor movements in the southern U.S., campaigned for equality in South Africa during Apartheid, and brought greater attention to the AIDS crisis and the havoc it wreaked on the LGBTQ+ community. As oppression and the systems that uphold it evolve, the tools for promoting advocacy and reform must adapt as well. (Source: “Who Designed the March on Washington?”)

Fun Fact: More than 40 years after his life was changed by Gandhi’s teachings during a pacifist conference in India, Bayard Rustin delivered the keynote speech at the dedication of the Gandhi statue in New York City’s Union Square Park on October 2, 1986. (Source: NYC Parks)

Listen to the people who disagree with you, then search for a common value or goal. Bayard learned the importance of listening to others early in his career as an activist. After making a speech at a meeting in Indianapolis in 1941, Bayard stopped in a diner for a meal. The owner (a white woman) refused to serve him because she was afraid that her customers would stop eating there if she offered service to a black man. Bayard listened to her concerns, then asked if she would join him in conducting an experiment: she would make him a hamburger and set it in front of him, though he would not eat it for 15 minutes. If no white customers came into the diner during that time, he told her he would leave. She agreed, and was amazed to observe that several white customers came in but barely noticed the lone black patron sitting at the front of the diner with his untouched meal. Pleasantly delighted by the outcome of the experiment, she made him a hot fresh meal. From that day forward, the diner served customers of all races and backgrounds. (Source: We Are One – The Story of Bayard Rustin)

Be loud and proud about who you are and where you come from. Bayard was open about being a gay man throughout his life, which put him at risk of harassment, discrimination, and bodily harm, especially during the civil rights movement. In spite of the dangers he faced, he embraced the Quaker values that had been instilled in him by his grandparents, and became the embodiment of integrity. By living his truth, he shattered stereotypes for individuals who had never known or befriended a gay person before. Friends, neighbors, and even people we disagree with are more likely to stand up against hatred and injustice when they personally know someone from a community that is under attack. Bayard, as well as openly gay public figures like Harvey Milk, also likely inspired some the activists who launched the Gay Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Change through nonviolent activism doesn’t happen overnight. It is a gradual process that requires compassion, patience, and the ability to make space for others, especially when you disagree with them. Bayard Rustin understood that, and he embraced the power of small steps to pave the way to larger movements.

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