civil rights activist
Birthplace: West Chester, Pa.
Rustin was one of the most influential civil rights activists of the 1950s and '60s, yet he maintained a low profile, reserving the spotlight for other prominent figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph. He was a firm believer in and practitioner of nonviolent forms of protest.
As a student at City College of New York in the late 1930s, Rustin was drawn to the Young Communist League. He organized for the group until 1941, when he turned his efforts to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nondenominational religious group that sought racial justice, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a nonviolent direct-action organization dedicated to improving race relations and ending racial discrimination in the U.S. Rustin and Randolph planned a 1941 march on Washington to protest discrimination in the defense industry. The protest was cancelled when President Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting such discrimination. Rustin also organized 1947's Journey of Reconciliation, in which blacks and whites rode together on public transportation. The journey served as a model for the freedom rides of the 1960s. He was imprisoned several times in the 1940s for his activism.
Rustin began his long association with King in the 1950s, serving as his adviser and in 1957 as a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a major force organizing the civil rights movement. Perhaps Rustin's most prodigious achievement was the SCLC's 1963 March on Washington. He served as organizational coordinator for the massive gathering, at which about 250,000 people congregated at the Lincoln Memorial in support of civil rights legislation. It was at this march that King delivered his famous “I Have Dream” speech.
The next year Rustin organized the boycott of New York City schools to protest the system's racial injustices and reluctance to integrate the schools. More than 400,000 students participated. In 1964 Rustin went to work at the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, a civil and workers' rights organization. He served as its executive director and president from 1964 until his death in 1987.Died: 8/24/1987