Bayard T. Rustin’s Pragmatic Quaker Faith
Bayard Taylor Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1912 and raised by his grandmother Julia Wilson, who attended Quaker meetings, and his grandfather Janifer Rustin. Both grandparents were active in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the civil rights campaigns of the 1910s–1930s. His grandparents taught Rustin about the importance of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
Rustin started his political activism under the tutelage of A. Phillip Randolph, a labor union leader and chief strategist of various march-on-Washington movements in the 1930s and 1940s. By the late 1940s, Rustin was a well-known organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
Rustin’s faith-based message for civil disobedience and nonviolent action was on full display when he gave the prestigious William Penn Lecture in 1948 at the Race Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, Pa. The lecture provided Rustin with a platform to address his new Quaker community more directly on the importance of “brotherhood” and resistance politics. Rustin was committed to his pragmatic Quaker faith that would carry him into the 1950s–1960s Civil Rights Movement until his passing in 1987.
In March 1948, Bayard T. Rustin, in his capacity as secretary of FOR’s Racial-Industrial Department, was honored with the opportunity to deliver the William Penn Lecture as part of the Young Friends Movement of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Since its inception in 1916, the William Penn Lecture had been given by several Quaker luminaries. The lecture, titled “In Apprehension How Like a God” (drawing on Shakespeare’s Hamlet), touched on many Quaker values but, more importantly, the moral and pragmatic lessons Rustin had learned while incarcerated for two years in Kentucky and Pennsylvania federal prisons for refusing induction into the military.
In his lecture, Rustin reminded Friends of the need to uphold their moral responsibility with integrity as individuals and within the broader community whenever witnessing and confronting domestic or global social injustices. Rustin implored Friends toward consistency and truthfulness in the face of violence, war, and oppression.
Rustin’s William Penn Lecture was given in the Cold War context of national and international uncertainty. To the extent that Quakers could navigate such uncertainty, Rustin’s aim rested on the hope “that [the] spark of God in each of us is not all but completely smothered” by war, violence, and apathy. He feared that the competing global nationalisms and the then-entrenched U.S. military conscription policy would enhance an already seemingly fixed Procrustean world politics.
In this new post-World War II environment, Rustin was concerned that Quakers and broader humanity had “become cynical and frustrated” and therefore suspicious of the unknown other, from the provincial to the international level. Rustin reveals his commitment to the power of human creativity in community, despite cultural and other social differences, through a metaphor that reflects his “oneness of the human family” idea that informs his pragmatic Quaker faith.
Using another metaphor, Rustin speaks of the need to use our energies and moral strength wisely. Rustin’s “contents of a drinking cup” metaphor represents the vessel that contains the “limited [positive] energy for social action”:
The spark, the potential, is indeed still within us, but in our reliance on violence we have misused our energies and sapped the strength from our moral muscles. At this moment each man in the world possesses a limited energy for social action. Let us consider this quantity [like] the contents of a drinking cup. If we use a portion of this energy in fear, another portion in frustration, and still another in prepar ation for violent aggression, soon we shall discover that our power is greatly diminished. But, if we can discipline ourselves—and that is a matter requiring a practical, willing, and thorough-going devotion—we can remove fear, hatred, bitterness, and frustration. Then the cup will overflow with energy, a great deal of which can be used in finding a creative solution to our problems.
Rustin issues a clarion call to Quakers and others to rethink accepting violence (or oppression) for any reason. He sees the use and threat of violence for the sake of justice as equivalent to “moral suicide.” To Rustin, any violent act, physical or otherwise, coming from either a totalitarian regime or a supposed democratic one minimizes real concerns to overcome injustice.
Rustin’s solution is for everyone to practice “discipline” towards a renewed revelation; he thinks “a practical, willing, and thorough-going devotion” to the Inner Light will change the contents of the cup from negative to positive, and from limited to abundant. Rustin suggests that the people’s collective power remains in their individual commitment—or perhaps recommitment—to the Inner Light, and not in the outer world of problems, which produces fear, distrust, and hopelessness that can distort who we are as a caring human community. Discipline, creativity, and a willingness to devote ourselves, our resources, and our collective spirit to resolving our shared problems were required. This echoes Howard Thurman’s proclamation: when our backs are against the wall “Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.”
Rustin tells Friends that the moral imperative should be guiding their thoughts and actions. Although Rustin did not offer any systematic theology, he did extend a moral message (perhaps a Niebuhrian moral realism). Rustin rationalizes:
If it is true that violence destroys our liberty, it is also possible to offer some evidence that violence causes inconsistencies that are tantamount to moral suicide. The moral man is he who is opposed to injustice per se, opposed to injustice wherever he finds it; the moral man looks for injustice [first] in himself. But in the process of creating and utilizing modern weapons, one cannot really be concerned with injustice wherever it appears. Certainly, many who use violence wish to be so concerned, and begin with a broad sense of community; but they end in opposing injustice when it touches them, having become capable of rationalizing when they use it against others.
Rustin issues a clarion call to Quakers and others to rethink accepting violence (or oppression) for any reason. He sees the use and threat of violence for the sake of justice as equivalent to “moral suicide.” To Rustin, any violent act, physical or otherwise, coming from either a totalitarian regime or a supposed democratic one minimizes real concerns to overcome injustice. Rustin finds U.S. policies justifying conscription hypocritical while challenging non-democratic regimes who use the same logic against the United States. Rustin believes violence and the threat of violence are equally immoral.
Rustin made several critical observations about the U.S. government’s unnecessary use of the atomic bomb in Japan in August of 1945 as a sign of weak moral integrity. For instance, Rustin states:
We . . . observe the eternal truth proclaimed by Laotse, Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, George Fox, and Gandhi: the use of violence will destroy moral integrity—the very fundamental of community on which peace rests. We cannot remain honest unless we are opposed to injustice wherever it occurs, first of all in ourselves.
This is a viewpoint he later shares with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which we ought to heed today.
Rustin explicitly sought to persuade others into considering civil disobedience as a social democratic strategy for pursuing structural and policy change. Rustin advocated for a humanitarian, communal, and moralistic approach to change, thus disregarding an individual’s political affiliation, geographic location, or government system.
Rustin reiterates his position on the importance of individual responsibility and moral integrity to holistic communities, especially when challenging unjust laws in nonviolent ways:
Individual responsibility is the alternative to violence; individual responsibility is capable of overcoming fear; it [can convert] nation-worship back to the Judeo-Christian tradition and ethic; it is capable of re-establishing moral integrity. How can we begin? We can begin by opposing injustice wherever it appears in our daily lives. As free men, we can refuse to follow or to submit to unjust laws which separate us from other men no matter where they live, nor under what government they exist.
Rustin explicitly sought to persuade others into considering civil disobedience as a social democratic strategy for pursuing structural and policy change. Rustin advocated for a humanitarian, communal, and moralistic approach to change, thus disregarding an individual’s political affiliation, geographic location, or government system. Drawing on Mohandas Gandhi’s work, Rustin made a distinction between an individual’s duty and right to protest and resist unjust laws propagated by a state or government. He proclaimed:
One has not the right to rebel against the state. One has not the right to resist the social group of which he is a part. This is particularly true where decisions made have been reached after extensive democratic discussion. One has, on the other hand, a duty to resist, and one resists because the state is poorly organized and one’s everlasting aim is to improve the nature of the state, to disobey in the interest of a higher law. Hence, one has the duty but not the right to rebel.
Rustin makes a strong argument in emphasizing duty over right for a morally based social democracy with active citizens at the helm of the decision-making process. Rustin privileges the moral integrity of the people over unjust laws but on pragmatic ecumenical grounds:
There have been many great men in history who have been civil resisters. All who have resisted have seen clearly that social progress is made through simultaneous change in men and in the environment in which men find themselves. Thus, these men have not only sought to behave with integrity, but they have resisted, secure in the faith that their opposition ultimately would influence society in the direction of those conditions which make it possible for other men to see issues clearly enough to press for a more abundant economic, social, and political life. These men recognized that there is “individual responsibility for collective guilt.”
Resistance politics leads to individual and community change. People must be made aware of the conditions that prevent social progress. The duty to resist is part of Rustin’s hope that successful oppositional protest politics would eventually result in positive societal changes. Individual responsibility is essential to a collective shift in attitude, public policies, and structural adjustments although Rustin does anticipate some challenges to his pragmatic Quaker views against war preparations, war funding, and war itself:
One may question that a minority could stop war, but certainly one cannot question that disobedience both to military service and to payment of taxes for war would reveal to the state that a segment of the population cares enough to pay a price for peace. Wide-spread resistance to war preparations and the willingness of resistors to face imprisonment would have to be taken seriously by the state and ultimately would have a profound effect on American foreign policy.
Bayard Rustin leafletting with Bradford Lyttle outside the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, Pa., circa 1950. Photo by Gamble Brothers.
Peace is the goal; sacrificing for peace, even in prison, could serve as an effective strategy, as Rustin previously thought while incarcerated in the federal penitentiaries. Rustin insisted on the use of civil disobedience as an effective social democratic means for producing more humane policy outcomes, moving away from fear and closer to his “oneness of the human family” vision:
Civil disobedience is not advocated as a cure-all, nor is it urged as an alternative to world government. It is not itself equal to the adjustment of social, political, and economic displacements which have produced first depression and then dictatorship and war. Such adjustments are…the means of peace. But in our fear, when we behave as if the truth were not true, the real problem, the struggle to provide men with bread, beauty, and brotherhood, has been relegated to a second place. Our fears have brought about an armaments race, and until we have broken the vicious cycle of this race with the Soviet Union, there cannot be attention, energy, and money given to the basic causes of war and injustice.
Rustin believes Quakers have also fallen into the trap of blind patriotism because of fear while ignoring “the real problem” that is “the struggle to provide men with bread, beauty, and brotherhood.” Our individual and collective moral responsibility should be, according to Rustin, to disarm the United States through civil disobedience and the constant pursuit of Truth. Rustin sees citizens as the real representatives of the United States because people can refuse to carry guns and pay the war taxes. This strategy would bring humanity back from the brink of self-destruction—that useless material capitalist competition perpetuates—and gradually into the “brotherhood of man.”
For Rustin, the idea of defending our “freedom” throught violence was unacceptable, since it meant abandoning our social democratic values while destroying our moral and religious foundations.
In concluding his lecture, Rustin reminds Friends to muster the courage and the intellectual and revolutionary strength to return to a time where they relied on the normative precepts of the Christian ethic. Rustin thinks Friends, if not broader humanity, have the potential to change the course of history if only they could use discipline and listen to the Light Within. He trusts that each person can still understand at the level of God (as rational moral beings) to do the right thing for the whole of humanity. Quakers must once more grasp the urgency of the times and stop complying, even implicitly, with the use of weapons; engaging in or condoning violence; and worshiping materialism and capitalism. Nonviolent civil disobedience is the way to enacting “the will of God”:
Unless like Jesus and Gandhi, we attain that spirit which makes it possible for us to stand with arms outstretched, even unto death, saying “You can strike me, you may destroy my home, you may destroy me, but I will not submit to what I consider wrong; neither will I strike back.” Many will question the practicality of such a course, but has not the life, the work, the death of Gandhi demonstrated in our time that one man holding fast to truth and to nonviolence is more powerful than ten thousand men armed? Yet even though failure should seem certain, the faith we profess demands allegiance.
For Rustin, the idea of defending our “freedom” through violence was unacceptable, since it meant abandoning our social democratic values while destroying our moral and religious foundations. He insisted that Friends ought to believe in their intellectual capacity—inherent in the Inner Light (“like a god”)—to restore peace and “brotherhood.” Friends should use their agency (“in action like an angel”) to make individual and collective change by heeding the Light. Last, Rustin asked, “How can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we cannot, in time of crisis, find the way to love our brothers whom we have seen?” to convince Friends that to achieve real “brotherhood” requires accepting the theology of “that of God in everyone,” no matter the context or circumstances.