Quaker History through Biographies
The seventeenth century in England was an era of tremendous social, political and religious upheaval. In this violent unsettled time, George Fox, a man of humble origin, initiated a vigorous spiritual movement in protest against the state-supported Christianity of his day that many people felt idolized its outward forms and had lost its inner spiritual purpose.
One explanation of the term “Quaker” is that the word was applied in derision to members of Fox’s movement because they trembled (“quaked”) when they felt themselves to be speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit in their gatherings. The Quaker movement later adopted as its official name The Religious Society of Friends, though by then the term “Quaker” had been accepted in a non-pejorative sense.
Below is a presentation of Quaker history using a biographical approach, with care given to include woman, black and some less acknowledged figures. The list of figures is arranged chronologically, ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It is an incomplete list, largely confined to people whose lives had an impact on “the larger world,” as opposed to individuals who had an influence on internal matters of Quaker faith or theology, though in relation to the earliest days of Quakerism it is impossible to separate those spheres.
Those wanting more information are urged to search on-line for Quaker, academic and other reputable sources. The following paragraphs were compiled from such sources, except for those for Barrington Dunbar, about whom there is almost nothing on line. Information on his life comes from an out-of-print booklet, “Black Quakers,” published in Britain in 1986, in possession of the New Brunswick Monthly Meeting.
Another resource is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Quakers. This list includes not only self-identified Quakers but also those with a Quaker background such as Daniel Boone, Thomas Merton, composer Ned Rorem and George Washington’s general Nathanael Greene, whose meeting disowned him for his participation in the War of Independence. Please use with the customary cautions involving Wikipedia as a source.
QUAKER HISTORY IN BRIEF BIOGRAPHIES
George Fox (1624 – 1691)
Margaret Fell (1614 – 1702)
James Naylor (1616 – 1680)
Isaac Penington (1616 – 1679)
William Penn (1644 – 1718)
Robert Barclay (1648 – 1690)
Benjamin Lay (1682 – 1759)
Anthony Benezet (1713 – 1784)
John Woolman (1720 – 1772)
Elias Hicks (1748 – 1830 )
Elisabeth Fry (1780 – 1845)
Lucretia Mott (1793 – 1880)
Levi Coffin (1798 – 1877)
Alice Paul (1885 – 1977)
Barrington Dunbar (1901 – 1982)
Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)
GEORGE FOX (1624 – 1691) Fox was the son of a weaver in northwestern England and is regarded as the central figure in the origins of the Quaker tradition. In his time, there were many varieties of religion competing against each other, from the official Church of England to wild, anarchic sects. Fox searched for Truth among many of them, but his deep spiritual longing was not satisfied until he had the first of two mystical experiences (1647), revealing to him “That there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” What this meant to him was that he and people of all kinds can have direct experience of God without the mediation of established churches or paid ministers.
In a second revelation (1652), he was given the insight that “there is a great people to be gathered.” This launched him on a life of evangelizing throughout England, the Caribbean and North America that continued till his last days and that brought forth a major Christian revival, though one that was intensely persecuted by the religious authorities of his time.
An important element of his teaching was that “there is that of God in everyone.” In time, this concept led Quakerism to develop some universalist tendencies and even tolerance of “non-theists” among some in its ranks. The tensions between more and less Christ-centered Friends persist to the present day. Fox’s voluminous journal, his letters and his other writings inspired and guided the first generations of Quakers and provide a solid historical record of that period.
MARGARET FELL (1614 – 1702) Fell was a member of the local gentry, married to Thomas Fell. They had 8 children, most of whom did not live a complete life. T. Fell was an attorney, sometime member of Parliament and became a circuit judge. In 1652, when Fell was away riding the circuit, George Fox visited Swarthmoor Hall, the home of the Fells, for the first time. The Fells were a genuinely religious family; M. Fell was willing to listen to Fox and did so along with her servants Mary Askew, Anne Clayton and Thomas Salthouse, who later became well-known Quaker evangelists. William Caton, a hired companion to Margaret’s son George, also became a “weighty Quaker.”
By the time Judge Fell returned home, his wife and household had all become convinced Quakers. He himself did not become a Quaker, but was a sympathizer and protector. After his death, Swarthmoor Hall, under M. Fell’s direction, became a Quaker sanctuary and organizing center. She became an influential preacher and writer. An important work is Women’s Speaking Justified (1666), written during one of several imprisonments and now regarded as an early document in the struggle for equality for women. Using her powerful verbal skills, she once successfully petitioned the king to release Fox from prison. Among later Quakers, she became honored as one of the most important of the “Valiant Sixty” who established Quakerism throughout northern England. She and Fox were married in 1669.
JAMES NAYLOR (1616 – 1680) J. Naylor was an important early Quaker leader and a powerful speaker whose voice was “more fearsome than the sounds of the battlefield,” according to people who experienced his vocal ministry. At a time when George Fox was out of the country, Naylor became almost the surrogate head of the movement. This fact apparently went to his head, and he began to commit rather extravagant acts of Quaker proselytizing. The most famous / infamous of these was when he led a group of followers into the town of Bristol riding a donkey while the followers threw leaves and branches on the ground in front of him. Naylor apparently intended this to be a sign that Christ had come into people’s hearts to guide them directly (which is nothing more than Fox had said), but the established church regarded it as a blasphemous claim to be Christ returned, for which Naylor was gruesomely tortured and imprisoned.
The incident and its aftermath constituted a severe setback for Quakers, who while teaching unusual new ideas nonetheless strove to be considered respectable. When Fox came back to England, he initiated major reforms within the movement that de-emphasized charismatic leadership in favor of greater organization and recognized structures of authority. Working in consultation with Margaret Fell, he instituted the beginnings of the Yearly Meeting-Regional Meeting-Monthly Meeting system still operative today among many Quakers. Historians regard these reforms as important to the survival of Quakerism as other groups failed to stabilize and gradually died out (with many people from those groups entering Quaker ranks).
ISAAC PENINGTON (1616 – 1679) I. Penington was the son of the Lord Mayor of London. He was raised in a strict Puritan family (was there any other kind?) and was a genuine spiritual seeker from the age of seven, when he had his first intimation of a larger reality. He is known for his religious/mystical writings, which still appeal strongly to modern readers, but his political tracts were also important to him and greatly influenced Quaker thinking on such matters. He and his wife Mary had shared religious concerns and gradually became convinced Quakers after long initial opposition. They were ostracized from family and friends after their convincement and were often pelted with mud and stones on their way to Meeting. Penington endured many imprisonments and was known always to show forbearance and even tenderness towards his persecutors.
WILLIAM PENN (1644 – 1718) W. Penn’s father was Admiral of the British Navy. Penn became a Quaker at age 22, which displeased his father and led to his expulsion from the family. Destitute and homeless, he found safety and support in Quaker households. Later, he became a friend of G. Fox and they developed an almost father / son relationship. At the end of his biological father’s life, he and Penn reconciled and Penn inherited a large fortune. In 1681, the king granted him the charter for the province that became Pennsylvania to pay a debt the king owed Adm. Penn. Penn and other Quaker investors also purchased the charters to West Jersey (1677) and East Jersey (1682), and then had the goal of finding settlers for these provinces in order to turn them into profitable enterprises. But Penn was also interested in putting Quaker ideals into practice and so when he wrote Pennsylvania’s Charter of Liberties (1682) it included the right to a free and fair trial, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections of an advisory body to the provincial proprietor (Penn at this time). This document was an influential precursor to the U.S. Constitution.
Penn’s political treatises have been neglected, but some current historians are beginning to rank them with those of John Locke and other notables of the era. Penn bought land from the Lenape Indians rather than summarily dispossessing them of it. In time, Pennsylvania became a haven for religious minorities from throughout Europe. Sadly, after Penn’s initial time in the New World setting up the governance of the province, he spent most of the rest of his life in England involved in legal disputes arising from his unskillful business practices and too trusting nature. He was thrown in prison at one point, then granted clemency by England’s Chancellor. Nonetheless, he died penniless in England leaving his heirs with debts and messy legal entanglements.
Robert Barclay (1648 – 1690) R. Barclay was a Scottish Quaker and the author of Apology for the True Christian Divinity, published in Latin in 1676 and in English in 1678. “Apology” at that time meant “a defense” or “explanation” of, in contrast to its current meaning. This extensive work, though very difficult for modern readers, made a big splash in the seventeenth century, making Quaker thinking available to more highly educated and affluent people and, perhaps as important, defensible on logical grounds. Some authorities state that in helping to achieve convincements among a “higher” stratum of British society, Barclay’s work was important to the advance of Quakerism. And, in fact, the next generation of Friends produced notable figures in finance, commerce and manufacturing who helped lay the foundations of the Industrial Revolution. Barclay was for a time governor of the province of East Jersey, though he never went there, governing instead through deputies. His descendants were the founders of the present Barclay’s Bank, though it was known by different names for its first century.
BENJAMIN LAY (1682 – 1759) B. Lay was a birthright Friend and member of Colchester Meeting in England. After a trip to Barbados as a young man, where he witnessed the inhumane treatment of slaves, even among Quakers, he became a fierce advocate for abolition. Immigrating to America, he became a constant source of unease and tension within the Quaker community. He became a member of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting but, given his turbulent and severe temperament, completely ignored Overseers’ and Elders’ attempts to moderate his behavior and language, which included unflattering references to specific individuals.
Probably his most dramatic act (in 1738) was delivering at a large gathering of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in Burlington, NJ a strident denunciation of slavery and of the Society as an assemblage of sinful hypocrites, then pulling from underneath his coat a sword with which he pierced a large Bible that began to pour forth an alarming quantity of a blood-colored liquid. This, Lay declared, was blood on the hands of Friends who benefited from enslavement and of anyone not actively opposing it. (The liquid was pokeberry juice inside a tied-off animal bladder inside the hollowed-out Bible.)
He might have survived as a member of the Society, even after this display of histrionics, but he went on to write a book, published by his close friend Benjamin Franklin, continuing his harshly accusatory tone and personal attacks. Friends had a publishing review board at this time that would certainly not have allowed publication of the book and also forbade all mention of individuals. Lay was “read out of his meeting” (disowned) with no dissent shortly thereafter.
Lay was no taller than four feet. He adopted an ascetic lifestyle in his middle age and built a small cottage inside a “natural excavation in the earth,” in other words, a cave. He ate only fruits and vegetables and drank only water and milk, very nearly a vegan two centuries before the word was invented. Lay was buried in an unmarked grave in the Quaker burial ground in Abington, NJ though the “Book of Burials at Abington” does not list him as a member there. Quakers have subsequently chosen to forget him as nearly as possible, and he remains an obscure figure today, though a recent book revives his memory and his contributions to abolition.
ANTHONY BENEZET (1713 – 1784) A. Benezet was born in northern France to a family of Huguenots (French Protestants). Huguenots were a persecuted minority in France at this time and so Benezet’s family moved to England when he was two. He was a well-educated young man when his family moved to Philadelphia in 1731. He soon joined the Society of Friends. A career in trade was not successful and he accepted a position as a teacher in Germantown. Three years later, he moved to a position at the famous Friends’ English School of Philadelphia (now William Penn Charter School). He became known as a fine teacher and as having a strong dislike for the harsh methods of discipline that were then the norm in education.
After some time, he left FESP and established a secret school in his own home for the children of slaves and then a girls’ school, the first public girls’ school in America. In 1770, with help from the Society, he took his secret school public as the Negro School in Philadelphia, ostensibly teaching the children of free blacks but actually taking any child who came. Benezet also wrote powerful tracts and pamphlets that influenced the debate over slavery. In England, his arguments were picked up and disseminated by Quakers and non-Quakers who were working to abolish the slave trade. His writings are credited with persuading Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846), who was not a Quaker, to embark on his famous abolitionist career. Sadly, Benezet died before his efforts bore full fruit. Though slave ownership was gradually abolished among Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic in a series of gatherings and resolutions from 1758 to 1761, the British Parliament did not abolish the slave trade until 1807, and the institution of slavery on British soil was not outlawed until 1833.
It is of interest that Benezet and the better-known anti-slavery advocate John Woolman (see below) were not close collaborators despite the fact that their lives and localities almost perfectly over-lapped. Though Benezet did give editorial assistance to Woolman before the publication of the latter’s influential pamphlet “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes,” Benezet’s efforts were generally focused on the international slave trade and conditions in Africa, while Woolman concentrated on abolition of slavery among North American friends. Despite very fragile health, Benezet taught at both his schools until shortly before his death, and it is perhaps unfair that his life and work are not as well-known today as that of Woolman.
JOHN WOOLMAN (1720 – 1772) J. Woolman was a mystic and an early abolitionist, the man who garners most of the credit for the movement to abolish enslavement among Quakers, though Anthony Benezet, Benjamin Lay and many lesser-known Quakers deserve recognition as well. While Woolman has been consistently lauded since his day, Lay has received very nearly the opposite treatment. This is probably because Woolman was an unassuming, “gentle Friend” and a good writer, the kind of man more appreciated among Friends then and now while Lay (like George Fox!) was a rabble-rouser and trouble maker. Woolman keenly felt the suffering of farm animals and some of his writings make him sound like an animal rights advocate ahead of his time. He also advocated for fair treatment of Native Americans and all poor people. His ministry against slavery is generally held to have been effective, and in 1761 both Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and London Yearly Meeting passed strong minutes against slave ownership and trade. The Philadelphia Meeting followed up with measures to help the formerly enslaved stand on their own as free people. Woolman’s journal accounts of his spiritual life, and other writings, still hold value for modern readers, Friends and non-Friends alike.
ELIAS HICKS (1748 – 1830) The “Great Separation” of Quakers, 1827 – 1828, was grounded at least in part in the views of the influential traveling minister Elias Hicks. His theological focus was the relative authority of the Inward Light and the Bible; he strongly favored the former. Additional themes in his ministry were the need for reformation of Friends’ lives, which he felt had become spiritually anemic and too conformed to the dominant culture, along with other economic and political issues, including slavery, which he opposed inside the Society and later outside.
Hicks was never involved personally in the separation (advocating neither for nor against it), despite his ideas and person becoming a flashpoint of animosity and invective, which soon sullied the theological debate with ad hominem insults and power struggles. These interwoven problems led to schisms first in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, then in the NYYM (Hicks’s own), Baltimore Yearly Meeting and elsewhere. “Hicksites” (first a term of derision, just as “Quakers” had been) held and expanded Hicks’s views while “the Orthodox” hewed more closely to prevalent Protestant views of the Bible and the necessary Atoning Death of Jesus. Early Orthodox Quakers followed English Friend Joseph John Gurney (brother of Elizabeth Fry) into more evangelical understandings and practices. Both sides experienced further schisms (see www.quakerinfo.org/Quakerism/branches/index for the sorry details), some of which got patched up in the twentieth century.
Nonetheless, there are still three quite distinct “modes” of Quakerism, represented by three broad confederations of yearly meetings: Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference and Evangelical Friends Church International, roughly corresponding to Gurneyite, Hicksite and more deeply evangelical tendencies. Some yearly meetings, including our own, have dual affiliations. Most belong to the Friends World Committee for Consultation, formed to try to maintain some degree of amity if not unity among Quakers worldwide.
ELIZABETH FRY (1780 – 1845) E. Fry was the third of twelve children. Her father was a successful banker / businessman and her mother as a member of the Barclay banking family. Her family was “fashionable,” wearing the standard dress of the day, even to worship, and not the plain dress of most Quakers. Elizabeth was a frivolous child (!), but as a young woman was strongly affected by the vocal ministry of a visiting American Friend, William Savery, and gradually became more “Quakerly” in attire and behavior. She married a shy, plain Friend (Joseph Fry) and they had eleven children.
In adulthood, Fry became famous for her ministry to Newgate Prison for Women. She organized Friends to provide (home-made) clothing for the women, children and infants incarcerated there and also helped to supply fresh straw for them.(Straw laid on the cold stone floors was the only bedding available and prison authorities rarely replaced it.) From this informal beginning there grew an organization that provided both schooling for imprisoned children and unworked cloth so that prisoners could knit, sew and make goods for sale. By 1818, Fry was so well known as an authority on prison conditions and needed reforms that she was called to testify before the House of Commons on these matters, the first women ever to testify to Parliament. She also established Visiting Nurses Societies, libraries for the British Coast Guard and a nurses’ training school that influenced the thinking and practices of Florence Nightingale and sent nurses to the battle front during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856).
Her thoughts on reform of women’s prisons took their most complete form in a book (1827) that called for separate quarters for women with infants and other humane improvements as well as arguing for more opportunities for women in society at large. She also strongly condemned the death penalty. Her work eventually came to be supported by Queen Victoria, and she had a formal visit with the King of Prussia who was contemplating reforms to modernize his nation. She continued working vigorously till just prior to her death; her burial was attended by 1,000 people, the largest burial of a private citizen in Britain up to that time. And remember, her many accomplishments were undertaken when she was having and rearing eleven children!
LUCRETIA MOTT (1793 -1880) L. Mott was a leading voice in the abolitionist and women’s movements of her time. She was a Hicksite Friend and became a Recorded Minister in 1821, that is, someone officially recognized as a cogent and powerful speaker within Friends’ Meetings. She helped organize the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in NYC (1838) and traveled widely for the abolitionist cause, working closely with Frederick Douglas and Lucy Stone. Even though they had been chosen as delegates, she and other women were denied seats at the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London (1840). One such woman was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the two became good friends and allies. They, along with Susan B. Anthony and others, organized the first American women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY (July 18 – 19, 1848).
Controversy among Friends over Mott’s outspokenness caused her both mental anguish and considerable physical illness. Like her fellow abolitionists, Angelina and Sarah Grimke (please Google these fascinating sisters), she was harshly criticized for speaking to mixed-gender audiences and being a “race amalgamator.” She was sometimes threatened by violent, unruly mobs, but always staunchly maintained that only moral force be used to oppose slavery (and was therefore against the Civil War). After the war, she continued to travel, speak and lend her considerable energies to a variety of causes, including the effort to extend the right to vote to women.
She helped found Swarthmore College and won the debate over chartering it as co-educational. She advocated tirelessly until her death for all of America’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised people, among them Native Americans, women and free blacks. Arguing for equal pay for equal work and for women’s entry into the professions, she was one of the nation’s earliest and most radical reformers.
LEVI COFFIN (1798 – 1877) L. Coffin was a descendant of Tristam Coffin, who came to North America in 1642 and was one of a small number of people who purchased Nantucket Island from the Native Americans. Coffin was almost entirely home-schooled as a child in North Carolina and became a founder of schools and a teacher in his early adulthood. His sympathy for enslaved people also developed early, and one of the schools he established was for the purpose of teaching slaves about Jesus and the Bible. Slave masters initially gave their consent but the school became so popular that they began to see it as subversive of their rights and it was forced to close.
After moving to Indiana and later Ohio, Coffin became active in the Underground Railroad network that helped people fleeing slavery reach northern states or Canada. He was so dedicated to this cause that he became known as the President of the Underground Railroad and is credited with helping between two and three thousand people gain their freedom. One of these, an unnamed woman, fled across the partially ice-covered Ohio River carrying her infant pursued by men with bloodhounds, eventually making it to the Coffin home. This incident was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it many popular plays.
As an entrepreneur, Coffin established a wholesale business purveying only goods made from free laborers. He was influential in pressuring the federal government to establish a Freedmen’s Bureau to help the formerly enslaved make a successful transition to lives as free citizens. When the Bureau was created in 1865, he became actively involved in its work and remained so for the rest of his life. He was a much-lauded delegate to the Anti-Slavery Society in Paris in 1867. Several years after his death in Cincinnati, African Americans erected a monument over his grave to honor his lifetime of service on their behalf.
ALICE PAUL (1885 – 1977) A. Paul was born in Mt. Laurel, NJ and had a strict Quaker upbringing, knowing only Quakers except for her family’s Irish Catholic maids, whose going to dances scandalized her. She graduated from Swarthmore in 1905 (thank you, Lucretia Mott!) and shortly thereafter traveled to England and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement there. She dreaded public speaking but not physical confrontation, and by the time she returned to the U.S. in 1910, she had experienced a number of imprisonments, hunger strikes and one incident of forced feeding while in prison. She continued to advocate for women’s rights and led a massive suffrage parade on Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in Jan., 1913. But by 1917, nothing had changed for women, so Paul led a dozen other women in picketing at the White House, the first people ever to do so. The women were arrested, jailed and force-fed when they went on a hunger strike. Paul herself was confined in a hospital psychiatric ward.
The White House worked to suppress news accounts of the women’s brutal treatment, but word leaked out and a backlash occurred, leading to the release of all thirteen women and widening support for the 19th Amendment, the centerpiece of the struggle. Exactly a year after the picketing began, Wilson announced his support of the amendment, and after two more years of Congressional wrangling, it passed on Aug. 26, 1920 (and survived two more years of legal challenges). But Paul had won more than the vote because a U.S. Court of Appeals had thrown out the charges against the picketers, establishing the legal right to demonstrate in the nation’s capital and making her stalwart campaign of civil disobedience an enduring model.
Post-suffrage, Paul earned three law degrees and was instrumental in winning guarantees of gender equality in the U.N. Charter and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She WROTE the Equal Rights Amendment and campaigned ferociously for it in radio and television appearances. She died in 1977, at age 97, having seen the congressional passage of the ERA, but dying too soon to know it would never be ratified by enough states to become law.
BARRINGTON DUNBAR (1901 – 1982) B. Dunbar was born into a poor black family in British Guiana, where he received a basic primary education, was then apprenticed to a tailor and worked as a tailor for a number of years. Very bright and knowing his own potential, he moved to NYC to live with his older brother in Harlem. He completed high school and went on to City College (tuition-free at that time) where he became interested in sociology and worked a variety of before-during-and-after-schools jobs to support himself. He completed a Masters Degree in sociology at Columbia in 1935, still working long hours to subsist. His thesis topic was “The Difference in Behavior Patterns of West Indian and Southern Negroes in Harlem.”
He started a doctoral program at Columbia but withdrew when it became clear to him how limited job opportunities for black Ph.Ds were. He subsequently took training in managing residential cooperatives, found work in that field and gradually drifted into community organizing. The rest of his life was devoted to ventures with the common goal of helping build individual self-respect and community pride while lifting people out of poverty. This work occurred in the U.S. and in Europe in the post-war period. Over time, Dunbar was appointed to positions of higher and higher responsibility but, motivated by deep empathy and a strong sense of a Christian calling, he never lost his ability to connect with “common people” and translate their concerns and grievances into effective programs to help them.
Dunbar lived in Chicago from 1953 till 1962 and joined the Society of Friends during that time, having become familiar with Quakers while engaged in foreign relief work and feeling that he share their deepest values. During the tumultuous 60s, Dunbar often found himself not excusing, but trying to explain how black rage was a necessary step toward the pride and self-respect needed by oppressed people to move toward more promising and productive lives. Though he never condoned violence in speaking up for black people, many Friends found his views difficult to accept.
Moving to New York to take work with a federally financed antipoverty agency, he continued to find himself in two worlds, one of poor, angry disadvantaged people of color and one of comfortable, complacent (he felt) white Quakers. However, he maintained his desire to be a bridge between those worlds. His integrity and obvious good intentions meant he never lost the esteem and often affection of almost everyone who knew him. He moved to Canada to be among family when he became ill at the age of seventy-six and joined a Quaker Meeting there. That meeting and the 15th Street Meeting in Manhattan, where he had been a member for many years, held memorial meetings for him when he died a year later. The NYYM renamed its Black Development Fund, which he had helped establish, the Barrington Dunbar Fund for Black Development. He was remembered affectionately for many years as an uncomfortable but vital “thorn in the side.”
BAYARD RUSTIN (1912 – 1987) B. Rustin was involved in leftist and pacifist groups from his early years and in civil rights actions almost before there were such things. He found that Quakerism united his chief concerns as well as giving a spiritual dimension to his life, and he joined the New York Yearly Meeting in 1936, remaining a member for his entire life.. A few years later, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and became active in protesting segregation in the armed services and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. In 1944, he was jailed for his conscientious objection to the war, but not being one for quitting under any circumstances, he was soon to be found protesting the segregation of the jail’s eating facilities.
After the war ended and he was released, he organized protests against segregated public transportation in South Carolina and was sentenced to a chain gang for several weeks. In the early 50s, he was the person who first introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. He played a major role in the Montgomery, AL bus boycott in 1956. Having been organizing actions of various kinds since he was a teen-ager, he was given the lead role in organizing the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs in August 1963, one of the most iconic events of American post-war history.
He continued to work for civil rights in the U.S. and abroad. In the 70s and 80s he was an election observer in South America, the Caribbean and Europe. He was a prominent spokesman for Vietnamese boat people and Haitian refugees.
Because he was an openly gay man his entire adult life, his role in the American civil rights movement has unfairly been given short shrift until very recently. In the 80’s he added advocacy for LGBTQ equality to the panoply of causes he supported. Rustin’s life partner from 1977 till 1987, the year of Rustin’s death, was Walter Naegle, an employee in the office of the NYYM, where he is still employed.
Information compiled by Keith F. Voos, a member of the NBMM, in September, October and November 2017.