BHM Day 6: Bayard Rustin, CORE and the Concept of Non-Violent Protest

When I first started reading about the early Civil Rights Movement in order to understand how it started, two groups kept coming up. The NAACP, and CORE. Most people know something about the NAACP, but fewer know about CORE. So I wanted to talk a bit about CORE and how they pioneered the Non-violent movement that King later adopted in the 1950’s. So, I started doing some digging about CORE and discovered Bayard Rustin, the black gay civil rights leader who advised Martin Luther King on non-violent protest strategies. It became clear that he was SO pivotal, that I wanted to begin this segment by presenting him to you.

Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 in Pennsylvania, and attended two HBCUs, Cheyney University and Wilberforce.  He moved to New York in the 1930’s to work with pacifist groups and early civil rights protests. He joined a communist organization in the 1930’s, which would tarnish him for life, even though he left within a few years. In 1936, he also briefly became a Quaker. In the 1940’s Rustin began working with the Fellowship for Reconciliation (FoR), an international multi-denominational Christian organization founded in 1914 to protest World War I. Rustin learned non-violence from FoR, in addition to his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, who was protesting British rule in India in the 1940’s.

Rustin collaborated with A. Philip Randolph on the original 1941 March on Washington movement to press for an end to discrimination in employment, hoping that the march would pressure President Franklin Roosevelt into opening defense-industry hiring to blacks. Roosevelt was so alarmed by the specter of violence and the negative publicity during the “war against fascism” that a deal was reached before the march could even begin; Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 – the Fair Employment Act, which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies.

Rustin did not only protest African-American injustices. He also traveled to California to protect the property of Japanese Americans in internment camps. And In 1942, he got arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in  Tennessee. After g the founding of CORE, Rustin was again jailed for refusing the draft, between 1944-1946.  Rustin helped CORE organize the first of the Freedom Rides, with 14 pairs of black and white men riding buses through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Rustin was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks.  Later, Rustin worked on FoR’s Free India Committee, attending a world pacifist conference in India in 1948.. Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” he wrote after returning to the States. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.

One of his jail sentences was more personal. In January 1953, Rustin, after delivering a speech in Pasadena, Calif., was arrested on “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy” charges, allegedly for a sexual act involving two white men in an automobile. With the FBI’s file on Rustin expanding, FOR demanded his resignation.

Rustin met the young civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and began working with King as an organizer and strategist in 1955. He taught King about Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience. He assisted King with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 and helped him found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. According to Rustin, “I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King’s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.” Rustin convinced King to abandon the armed protection, including a personal handgun.

Again going overseas, Rustin demonstrated against the French government’s nuclear test program in North Africa and in 1958, he played an important role in coordinating a march in Aldermaston, England, in which 10,000 attendees demonstrated against nuclear weapons.

Sadly, Rustin and King cooled their relationship in 1960. They were planning a march outside of the Democratic National Convention, and New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to announce that they were lovers if the march wasn’t called off. The march was called off and Rustin resigned from the SCLC.

Although most people associate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with Dr. King, it was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, meant to refocus younger activists on economic issues in addition to desegregation. The march was timed for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Because of Rustin’s “liability” as an openly gay man, the head of the NAACP asked that Randolph take the lead with Rustin as deputy. The march combined the NAACP, SNCC, CORE, the SCLC, the National Urban League and Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Challenges included Uniting feuding civil rights leaders, fending off opposition from Southern segregationists who opposed civil rights fending off opposition from Northern liberals who advocated a more cautious approach and figuring out the practical logistics of the demonstration itself. On the last point, Rustin later said, “We planned out precisely the number of toilets that would be needed for a quarter of a million people … how many doctors, how many first aid stations, what people should bring with them to eat in their lunches”.  Between phone calls, he drilled the hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters who had volunteered to serve as marshals. He made them take off their guns and coached them in the techniques of nonviolent crowd control he had brought back from a pilgrimage to India.  The march itself, of course, turned out to be a tremendous success, including those glorious moments when the official estimate of 200,000 was announced (actually, there was as many as 300,000, says Life.com); when Marian and Mahalia sang; when Mrs. Medgar Evers paid tribute to “Negro Women Freedom Fighters”; when John Lewis and Dr. King spoke; and when Bayard Rustin read the march’s demands. And perhaps the most poignant statement of the power of nonviolence was that there were only four arrests, Taylor Branch writes in The King Years, all of them of white people.

Bayard Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75. Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.

And now, some of the history of CORE.

The Congress of Racial Equality was started in 1942 in Chicago, IL, as a brainchild of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Of the 50 original members, 28 were men and 22 were women, roughly one-third of them were black and two-thirds white. Rustin, while not a father of the organization, was, as Farmer and Houser later said, “an uncle to CORE” and supported it greatly. CORE sought to apply the Gandhi’s principles of non-violence as a tactic against segregation. By 1961 CORE had 53 chapters throughout the United States. By 1963, most of the major urban centers of the Northeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and West Coast had one or more CORE chapters, including a growing number of chapters on college campuses. In the South, CORE had active chapters and projects in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky.

There were 4 projects that put CORE on the map, all organized based on non-violent protest, and all met with violent resistance. CORE worked in tandem with SNCC to sponsor the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides,  worked with numerous groups on March on Washington in 1963. and worked with the NAACP and other groups on the Freedom Summer Voter registration project– that was the summer that three CORE activists were murdered by the KKK.

The first CORE-sponsored sit-in was held in 1943 in Chicago. Twenty-seven black and white members of CORE sat at Jack Spratt Coffee House. When the blacks were refused service, both the black and white members refused to get up. Other customers participated, and eventually, the black CORE members were served. Sit-ins were then tried in St. Louis in 1949 and in Baltimore in 1955, by a group of Morgan students who sat at the counter of Read’s Drug Store. When the story was picked up by newspapers, Read integrated its lunch counters. But it was the 1960 sit-in in Greensboro that sparked an explosion in the effort. Over many months, small groups of students studied and debated the strategies and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance. Under cover of church, YMCA, and educational conferences, students from different schools met to organize. On February 1st, 1960, four black college students sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, from 11am to 3pm, waiting, studying, doing school work, and not moving. The sit-in was a purely non-violent protest. No one participated in a sit-in without seriousness of purpose. The instructions were simple: sit quietly and wait to be served. Often the participants would be jeered and threatened by local customers. Sometimes they would be pelted with food or ketchup. Angry onlookers tried to provoke fights that never came. In the event of a physical attack, the student would curl up into a ball on the floor and take the punishment. Any violent reprisal would undermine the spirit of the sit-in. When the local police came to arrest the demonstrators, another line of students would take the vacated seats. Within 2 days, a group of 60 students became involved, occupying every seat at Woolworths, from the start ‘til the end of the day. The KKK came to harass the students. But the effort swelled, spreading to Kress, Walgreens and other Greensboro restaurants. The sit-ins continued until July, when the majority of national drug store chains the national drugstore chains agree to serve all “properly dressed and well behaved people,” regardless of race. Triggered by the Greensboro sit-in, sit-ins occurred in 30 communities in 7 states including Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida. Counters at Woolworths, SH Kress, Katz, McCrory’s, Rexall and other national chains were targeted. All totaled, 70000 students participated in the sit-ins, even though many were beaten and 3600 were arrested.

 

CORE modeled the 1961 Freedom Rides after the ride of 1947. In 1961, an integrated group of civil rights activists rode Greyhound and Trailways busses into the South planning for black riders to enter “whites only” sections while white riders would enter the “colored” waiting rooms. The integrating actions of these Freedom Riders met with relatively minor resistance until they arrived in Anniston, Alabama on 14 May 1961.   In Anniston, Alabama, a white mob awaited the arrival of the first bus bearing the Freedom Riders at the Greyhound station.  As it arrived, they attacked the bus with iron pipes and baseball bats and slashed its tires.  The terrified bus driver hastily drove out of the station, but the punctured tires forced the bus to pull off the road in a rural area outside of Anniston. The white mob who pursued the bus fire bombed it and held the doors shut preventing riders from exiting the burning bus. Finally an undercover policeman drew his gun, and forced the doors to be opened. The mob pulled the Freedom Riders off the bus and beat them with iron. The second bus carrying Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston an hour later at the Trailways station. The bus driver got off and talked with Anniston police and a group of 8 white men. After the black Freedom Riders refused orders to move to the back of the bus, the white gang came flying onto the bus and beat and stomped the riders, especially targeting white “nigger lovers.” The white gang threw the bleeding and semi-conscious riders to the back of the bus, and it left for Birmingham. In Birmingham, an FBI informant in the Klan learned of a detailed plan in which Police Chief Bull Conner had agreed to give the Klan 15 minutes after the bus arrived to beat the riders before local police would arrive.  The plan was reported to the FBI headquarters, but no action was taken. The Trailways station was filled with Klansmen and reporters. When the Freedom Riders exited the bus, they beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains, and then, battered and bleeding, they were arrested. White Freedom Riders were particularly singled out for frenzied beatings. Two riders were hospitalized, including white Freedom Rider Jim Peck with 52 stitches in his head. That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders were ejected from the hospital because hospital personnel were afraid of the mob. Eight cars of churchmen, brimming with shotguns and rifles, headed off to rescue the riders. (This is ironic, considering that the Freedom Riders were pacifists and dedicated to non-violence). Chief Bull Connor threatened to arrest Rev. Shuttlesworth for having interracial meetings at his house. None-the-less, Shuttlesworth rescued Peck from the hospital at 2 AM. With most of the Freedom Riders injured, and the danger of the violence escalating to the point of someone being killed,  it was suggested that the Freedom Rides should be discontinued.  Nashville student Diane Nash, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) felt that if violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years.  She pushed to find replacements to resume the ride, and on May 17th, a new set of riders, students from Nashville, took a bus to Birmingham. There, they were arrested by Police Chief Bull Connor and jailed. These students kept their spirits up in jail by singing Freedom Songs. Out of frustration, Police Chief Bull Connor drove them back up to the Tennessee line and dropped them off stating “I just couldn’t stand their singing.”

 

Dr. King got involved with the Freedom Rides, developing a new strategy. Authorities in Jackson, Mississippi were intent on arresting all Freedom Riders who integrated the bus stations.  The new plan called for refusing bail, and filling the jails with Freedom Riders. Following arrest, the Riders would have 40 days in which to enter plea. They would stay in jail those 40 days and then bail out. The Freedom Riders rode from Montgomery to Jackson. Often with police escort. However, they were arrested in Jackson, the whites to the cushy city jail, and the blacks to the stifling county jail. When President Kennedy took no action, having cut a deal with the governors that the Riders would not be beaten, but could be arrested –  the white Riders began a hunger strike, and as the Freedom Rides continued, the jails filled as the Riders refused to post bail. A total of 300 Riders were arrested as a result of 60 Freedom Rides across the country, culminating in Jackson, MS. In response, the Riders were moved to the State Penitentiary at Parchman , where prison life is described as “worse than slavery, murders and rapes are common, and the guards use shotguns and leather whips to enforce absolute rule. The riders continued the hunger strike and sang Freedom Songs for hours at a time. In retaliation, first, the guards removed their clothes and made them lie on steel beds. Then they took the screens and the Riders were attacked with mosquitos. Next, the guards sprayed the Riders with DDT insecticide. Fire hoses are used to smash bodies against the steel bars, and the prisoners are tortured with agonizing electric cattle prods. Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael) later recalls: “When [the prod] touched your skin, the pain was sharp and excruciating, at once a jolting shock and a burn. You could actually see (puffs of smoke) and smell (the odor of roasting flesh) your skin burning.” Mississippi fails to break the Riders. They emerge from prison — Parchman and Hinds County Jail — stronger and more committed than before.

 

Finally, the Kennedy administration has the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) issue another desegregation order. When the new ICC rule takes effect on November 1st, passengers are permitted to sit wherever they please on the bus, “white” and “colored” signs come down in the terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms are consolidated, and the lunch counters begin serving  people regardless of color. In the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, a crack has been forced open in the solid wall of segregation.

But rules put to paper in Washington must be enforced on the ground in the South — and that requires men and women of courage to defy generations of custom and a century of terror. The new order is signed on November 1st, and on that same day nine Black students in Albany GA try to use the bus terminal’s “white-only” facilities. They are denied. And from that seed of defiance grows the Albany Movement which goes on to challenge segregation throughout Southwest Georgia.

Freedom Summer took place in 1964 when college students went South by the THOUSANDS to register blacks to vote. The effort was focused on Mississippi which had the lowest percentage of black voters in the country. One of the things that was done during Freedom Summer was to organize the Mississippi Freedom Party. 80,000 people joined the party and elected a slate of 68 delegates, including Fannie Lou Hamer, to attend the all-white Democratic National Convention. When the effort failed, Hamer’s appeal was televised, and there was a ban on racially discriminatory delegations at future conventions.

 

Thirty Freedom Schools were established throughout Mississippi, teaching black history, the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, and leadership development in addition to remedial instruction in reading and arithmetic. The Freedom Schools had hoped to draw at least 1000 students that first summer, and ended up with 3000. The schools became a model for future social programs like Head Start, as well as alternative educational institutions.
Freedom Summer activists faced threats and harassment throughout the campaign, not only from white supremacist groups, but from local residents and police. Freedom School buildings and the volunteers’ homes were frequent targets; 37 black churches and 30 black homes and businesses were firebombed or burned during that summer, and the cases often went unsolved. More than 1000 black and white volunteers were arrested, and at least 80 were beaten by white mobs or racist police officers. But the summer’s most infamous act of violence was the murder of three young civil rights workers, a black volunteer, James Chaney, and his white coworkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. On June 21, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner set out to investigate a church bombing near Philadelphia, Mississippi, but were arrested that afternoon and held for several hours on alleged traffic violations. Their release from jail was the last time they were seen alive before their badly decomposed bodies were discovered under a nearby dam six weeks later. Goodman and Schwerner had died from single gunshot wounds to the chest, and Chaney from a savage beating.

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OK folks, I know that was a little disjointed. I was rushing. But I was also learning. I have known so little, and I am learning so much, I just wanted to share. So, that’s it for now. Work calls. I hope all of this knowledge invokes a deeper understanding whenever people say that the Civil Rights “Struggle” was brutal, and we need to respect what was won for us, and not go backwards.

I know now that Ben Carson’s “bullsh*t” about race relations under Obama being the worst since slavery shows such an astounding lack of comprehension about black life in the South that it boggles the mind.

We have come very, very far. We just need to build on it.

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