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The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the life and experience of the social justice leader and a nonviolent protest organizer Bayard Rustin and demonstrate how the pivotal moments of his life can illuminate the challenges in addressing social justice issues. The essay then discusses the connections between those moments and the many challenges culturally diverse students experience in the schooling context.
Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist and organizer in the United States who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Houtman, Naegle, & Long, 2014). He was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania (Houtman et al., 2014). Rustin concerned himself with a multitude of civil issues; he fought against segregation, advocated nonviolence, promoted gay rights, and organized multiple protests including the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 (Houtman et al., 2014). He was also a spiritual teacher and an advisor to Martin Luther King who inspired him to fight against racial discrimination (Rustin, Carbado, & Weise, 2015). Rustin was one of the greatest leaders of the social justice movement in the United States and experienced many hardships being both African American and gay. Even though Bayard Rustin was a very prominent figure in history and an exceptional man, not many people know his name and biography, thereby depriving him of honor that he rightfully deserves.
One of the pivotal moments in Rustin’s life was the 7-week conference in India, which he attended in 1948 to study nonviolence from Gandhi’s principles. The notion of nonviolence was familiar to Rustin from his Quaker upbringing, but at the conference, he learned how it could be used for a political protest. The activist passed on the principles he learned to Martin Luther King, who was a well-known leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (Hirschfelder, 2014).
Arrest for the involvement in homosexual activities or ‘sexual perversion’ in 1953 was another pivotal moment in Rustin’s life and career (Rustin & Long, 2012). Shortly after the arrest, he was asked to leave a nonviolent interfaith organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation and was forced to quiet down his sexual life and be less open about it so his social justice work could prosper (Hirschfelder, 2014).
In 1963, Rustin assumed organizational and tactical responsibilities for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and headed its committee even though many leaders of the movement opposed his candidacy on the grounds of his sexual orientation (Hirschfelder, 2014). The march was a crucial step in the social justice movement in America. Rustin did an exceptional job organizing an event, which brought hundreds of thousands of people together to protest social injustice.
Bayard Rustin was denied many things because of who he was and who he was not. He was not white which meant lesser status in society, fewer opportunities in education, less freedom, and fewer rights. He was gay, for which he was judged and denied certain positions even among some fellow civil rights activists. It should be mentioned that even though some activists of the Civil Rights Movement were homophobic, it did not prevent the gay liberation movement from copying tactics that worked for improving a lot of people of color for organizing its protests and marches (Banks & McGee-Banks, 2010).
The currency of social, cultural, and political experiences and challenges that culturally diverse learners experience in academic environments across the United States can be demonstrated by the statistics which reveal that socially-detrimental practice of tracking in schooling persists even today despite the significant level of opposition from social activists and parents (Banks & McGee-Banks, 2010). Rustin fought for equality of different races in American society; however, he became a victim of sexual orientation discrimination that, on the conceptual level, is not that different from tracking. In a classroom environment, diversity may allow for a broader view and better understanding. Therefore, schools, colleges, and universities engaging in the practice of separating students into different categories by their academic abilities make it difficult to create a more open and less judgmental society.
Educators should develop a more culturally diverse curriculum which should include lesser-known diverse people, like the gay, African American social rights activist Bayard Rustin. Numerous scholars have pointed to the fact that studying history from the perceptive of people other than European males has the potential to culturally enrich the academic environment, thereby teaching students respect for victimized groups (Banks & McGee-Banks, 2010). Moreover, school segregation and prejudice about students’ potential based on race, both of which Rustin fought against, still have remnants in today’s educational approaches. Therefore, by making history lessons more inclusive, it is possible to make minority students who share some negative experiences with Rustin to feel more included and validated. Addressing these issues and considering the consequences of inaction can encourage better participation and success not only of culturally diverse students but also society as a whole.
Societies are not always just: even a great democratic country like the United States can be unfair to some groups. Life of Bayard Rustin is an example of a struggle for freedom. In his philosophy, people ought to stand up for what they believe is right, even when it is at odds with the law. Bayard fought for diversity and integration of different social groups and argued that working together and respecting each other would bring about a better life for everyone. Therefore, if the United States is to become a more just country, modern generations of students should be taught about Rustin and the principles that he espoused.
Banks, J. A., & McGee-Banks, C. A. (2010). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (7th ed.). Danvers, MA: Wiley.
Hirschfelder, N. (2014). Oppression as process: The case of Bayard Rustin (1st ed.). Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter.
Houtman, J., Naegle, W., & Long, M. (2014). Bayard Rustin: The invisible activist. New York, NY: Quaker Press.
Rustin, B., Carbado, D., & Weise, D. (2015). Time on two crosses: The collected writings of Bayard Rustin. New York, NY: Cleis Press.
Rustin, B., & Long, M. (2012). I must resist: Bayard Rustin’s life in letters. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.