Many, especially alumni and friends of Bethel College and its history, have by now heard the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Bethel in January 1960, where he spoke in Memorial Hall. At that time, King was beginning his rise as a civil rights figure in the United States. Five years earlier, he had been a leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which started after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. About three-and-a-half years after his visit to Bethel, Aug. 28, 1963, King would stand at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., at the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and deliver what became his most famous speech, commonly known as the “I Have a Dream” Speech.
But long before King made his visit to Bethel College (and soon thereafter to Goshen [Indiana] College), the organizing genius behind the March on Washington, who first became acquainted with King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Bayard Rustin, visited not only Bethel College but at least two area Mennonite churches.
Bayard Rustin was born March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was raised by his Quaker grandmother, Julia, and his grandfather, Janifer, a member of the AME Church, although for the first years of his life, Bayard thought they were his parents. His older “sister,” Florence, was actually his mother, 16 when she gave birth to him. Rustin never had a relationship with his father, a West Indian named Archie Hopkins. Julia Rustin participated in the NAACP and because of that, during Rustin’s childhood and youth such black leaders as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune were visitors in the Rustin home.
As a teenager, Rustin wrote poetry, played on his high school football team and may or may not have led an impromptu sit-in at a restaurant that served his white teammates but refused to serve him. He called for the team to be housed all together on the road, and was arrested for refusing the leave the white section of a movie theater. He excelled in school, not only in academics but also in music, oration and “dramatics.”
In his college years, Rustin studied at Wilberforce (Ohio) University and Cheyney State Teachers College, now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, both historically black institutions, and at City College of New York. (He was a student for five years but he never earned a degree.) While at CCNY in 1937, Rustin became involved with the campus chapter of the Young Communist League, believing the organization was committed to racial justice, but he left when its focus shifted away from civil rights. Also at some point during these years, Rustin told his grandmother that he was attracted to young men rather than young women. She is supposed to have simply said, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.” Rustin never denied or tried to hide his sexual identity, which was remarkable given the time he lived.
Rustin had an exceptional tenor voice. For a short time, he sang in Harlem nightclubs to earn a living, and he was in the chorus for the short-lived Broadway musical John Henry, starring Paul Robeson.
Rustin came to know trade union and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph in the early 1940s. Randolph would continue as Rustin’s mentor and friend for the rest of Randolph’s life. Randolph, who founded the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, proposed a “March on Washington” in 1941 to draw attention to the fact that blacks were excluded from bidding on national defense industry contracts. Randolph’s threat of having 100,000 people descend on Washington prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order that mandated formation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Randolph canceled the march, for which Rustin would have been the youth organizer.
During this period, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), after meeting the other great mentor of his life, the radical minister A.J. Muste, and co-founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Rustin organized campaigns and led workshops on nonviolent direct action for both organizations, as well as for the American Friends Service Committee and the War Resisters League. He served as field secretary and then race relations director for the FOR.
From 1944-46, during World War II, Rustin was jailed as a conscientious objector. As a Quaker and thus a member of a “Historic Peace Church,” he had the legal right to alternative service (Civilian Public Service). He rejected even that alternative on principle – objecting to war in general and to segregation of the armed forces in particular. He served terms in federal prisons in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. While in Kentucky, he protested prison segregation, which got him in trouble with both guards and white prisoners. When he was moved to Pennsylvania, Rustin was kept away from other prisoners so as not to “influence” them with his “radical ideas.” Matt Meyer, writing for the website WagingNonviolence.org in 2012, the centennial of Rustin’s birth, noted that those efforts to desegregate federal prisons pre-dated the civil rights movement’s lunch counter sit-ins and bus boycott campaigns by a decade.
In 1947, Rustin helped organize and participated in CORE’s Journey of Reconciliation, testing the 1946 Supreme Court ruling Morgan v. Virginia that declared segregation in interstate travel a violation of the Commerce Clause, and paving the way for the Freedom Rides of 1961. Rustin was arrested for this, spending three weeks on a chain gang. He later published a pamphlet, “22 Days on a Chain Gang,” that was widely read and credited with helping to reform this practice.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rustin visited India, as well as several countries in Africa and Europe, where he met activists from various independence and peace movements, and began, more and more, to see the struggle for civil rights in the United States as part of a worldwide movement to resist war and colonialism. In 1948, Rustin spent seven weeks in India studying Gandhian principles and practices of nonviolence (Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year). Randolph had first introduced Rustin to Gandhi’s teachings. From that came what is probably Rustin’s most widely known quote today: “We need in every community a group of angelic protesters. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California, in 1953 for “openly engaging in homosexuality” with two other men in a car. He spent 60 days in jail, but he always lived (before and after) as an openly gay man. His “greatest liabilities” to the civil rights movement were the fact that he refused to be closeted and his brief early ties to the Communist Party. In the weeks leading up to the 1963 March on Washington, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina would read the reports of Rustin’s arrest in Pasadena into the Congressional Record in an attempt to discredit him and derail the march, but the tactic backfired. Civil rights leaders wanted no association with Thurmond and became staunch Rustin defenders.
From 1954 (after either being asked to resign from FOR, or fired by Muste, the year before because of his homosexuality) until 1965, Rustin served as executive secretary of the War Resisters League.
Rustin first became an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted from early December 1956 until late December 1957. Rustin is credited with bringing to King a deep understanding of nonviolence ideas and practice at a time when King had only academic knowledge of Gandhi and Gandhian thinking, and no experience with organizing or the philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience. Rustin was instrumental in starting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during this time, as well as organizing, in May 1957, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial on the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, where King spoke.
In 1958, Rustin helped to coordinate a march in Aldermaston, England, that drew 10,000 protesters against nuclear weapons, as well as, in October, another gathering at the Lincoln Memorial to protest lack of progress in integrating public education since Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1960, a presidential election year, Rustin and King were planning a march/protest outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, a ground-breaking black lawmaker, threatened to say Rustin and King were lovers if they didn’t call off the march, which King did. Rustin resigned from the SCLC and was essentially estranged from King for several years. He would later say it was his Quaker beliefs that allowed him to forgive King.
In 1962, Randolph and Rustin began talking about organizing another March on Washington, looking toward the following year and the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. In early 1963, the SCLC organized actions in Birmingham, Alabama, to bring attention to efforts at racial integration there. When national television news reports broadcast the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters, including children, as ordered by city’s director of public safety, Bull Connor, the tide of public sentiment began to turn. King started to favor the idea of a march. When Rustin traveled to Birmingham to consult with King, Rustin urged widening the march’s focus to jobs and freedom.
Rustin was set to be the march director, coordinating “the Big Six” civil rights organizations: SCLC, CORE, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Urban League, the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But Ralph Wilkins of the NAACP did not want Rustin, with his “liabilities,” as the front man. Randolph agreed to be the director – then promptly made Rustin his deputy. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place Aug. 28, with at least 200,000 marchers and Rustin as its main organizer.
In his biography of Rustin, John D’Emilio writes that the following eight weeks “were the busiest in Rustin’s life. He had to build an organization out of nothing. He had to assemble a staff and shape them into a team able to perform under intense pressure. He had to craft a coalition that would hang together despite organizational competition, personal animosities and often antagonistic politics. He had to maneuver through the mine field of an opposition that ranged from liberals who were counseling moderation to segregationists out to sabotage the event. And he had to do all of this while staying enough out of the public eye so that the liabilities he carried would not undermine his work” (Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, University of Chicago, 2004).
The now-famous “Organizing Manual No. 2” was the march bible that Rustin and his team distributed from New York. Its 12 pages covered the practical to the philosophical to the political, for example: who’s sponsoring the march; “Why We March”; demands (10 of them); who will march; immediate tasks; “How Do I Get to Washington?”; schedule in Washington; “How Do We Leave Washington?”; signs and banners; food, health and sanitation facilities; children and overnight accommodation; and more.
Rustin recruited hundreds of off-duty police officers and fire fighters to serve as volunteer marshals for the march. He made them put away their guns and coached them in nonviolent crowd control. His only “out-front” action during that day was to read the 10 demands from the microphone at the base of the memorial.
Rustin and Randolph appeared on the cover of Life magazine’s Sept 6, 1963, issue. Ten days later, Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In 1964 and 1965, President Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act and then the Voting Rights Act passed. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and Rustin organized his trip to Oslo to receive it.
In 1965, Rustin and Randolph co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization of black trade unionists dedicated to racial equality and economic justice. Rustin served as president and then co-chair of APRI through 1979.
In the last decade of his life, Rustin was involved in a stable and happy relationship with Walter Naegle, almost 30 years his junior. He began speaking out more publicly for LGBTQ civil rights. In 1986, LGBTQ activist Joseph Beam asked Rustin if he would contribute an essay to a volume on the experience of gay black men. Rustin declined, but his response to Beam indicates much about how he based his life’s work: “My activism did not spring from my being gay or, for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal” (Peter Dreier, “Obama Awards Bayard Rustin – the Man Behind the March – the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” 8-9-13/10-9-13, Huffington Post).
Bayard Rustin died Aug. 24, 1987, from complications following surgery for a ruptured appendix. In 2013, the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Naegle accepted Rustin’s posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama.
Rustin’s only documented visit to Bethel College took place in February 1950. The Bethel Collegian, Jan. 31, 1950, reported that a “three-college peace conference” (though a later report says students attended from 12 colleges) sponsored by the Institute of International Relations was to meet on the Bethel campus Feb. 4-5. The theme was “Non-violent Techniques in Social Tension,” with lectures and discussion groups to be given and led by Quaker activists Lois and Paul Harris and Bayard Rustin.
The Spring Bulletin of the Institute of International Relations, American Friends Service Committee, Office at Friends University (Wichita), reported on the “Annual Student Conference” held at Bethel College in 1950:
“Bayard was in our area two and one half weeks. Three days were supposed to be rest but they were crowded with reports, working on program material, and only a small amount of time given to actual rest and a little given to composing music for Elizabethan poetry. The rest of the time he spoke and sang, and held conferences. He did a supurb [sic] job. The effect of his message is described, ‘I was challenged and stimulated by Bayard Rustin’s magnificent talk.’ ...
“He spoke to 10,352 persons while he was here in 40 different groups at the following places: North Newton, Tabor Church, Inman, Wichita, McPherson, Hays, Elk City, Coffeyville, Bartlesville [Oklahoma], Fort Scott, Ottawa, Lawrence, and Manhattan.”
“Tabor Church” refers to Tabor Mennonite Church, a rural church located between Newton and Goessel. Bayard’s Inman appearance was likely at a Mennonite church as well.
Rustin might have been at Bethel for the Annual Student Conference because he was a Quaker. But his appearance at Mennonite churches almost certainly owes something to his friendship with Selma Rich Platt Johnson. (She married Herman Johnson in 1965 and will be referred to throughout as “Johnson.”)
Johnson was born in Illinois in 1902 and moved to Newton at age 7, where her parents ran a hardware store, Rich Mercantile, for many years. She was the older sister of Willis Rich, who served as Bethel director of development, and Eldon Rich.
Johnson developed a strong ethical sense at a young age, her daughter-in-law, LaVonne Platt, writes in Full Circle: Stories of Mennonite Women (Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1978). A telling quote from Johnson: “I felt that I must do what God said.” Johnson also felt deeply about the wrongness of war from the time she was quite young.
After she graduated from Bethel College, Johnson taught for four years, in Moundridge and at Freeman (South Dakota) Junior College, before enrolling in Chicago Theological Seminary. There, she met Ferry Platt, who was studying to be a Congregational minister.
Selma and Ferry married in 1929. They had three children, Dwight, Joe and Zona, who was only 10 weeks old when her father died of pneumonia and meningitis in 1938.
After several years back in Chicago and then Topeka, and with the United States now caught up in the Second World War, Johnson, an outspoken pacifist, felt she needed to get back to “a more sympathetic Mennonite community,” so she resumed teaching in Moundridge. She was received with anything but sympathy, however, and eventually resigned in the middle of a school year. She took a position at Doane College, Crete, Nebraska, where ironically, says her son Dwight Platt, Bethel professor emeritus of biology, Johnson got along better with the ROTC students than she ever had with those from Moundridge High School.
In 1945, Joe Platt, 11, died from complications of surgery he had had as an infant to repair a diaphragmatic hernia. Johnson and her two surviving children returned to south-central Kansas, where she taught in the Walton public schools and also taught psychology at Bethel College.
Johnson was instrumental is starting the Human Relations Fellowship in the Newton area, working on civil rights issues. She was active nationally in the FOR and a radical offshoot from it called Peacemakers, more deliberately focused on civil disobedience, including war tax resistance. “We often went to FOR conferences and Peacemakers conferences,” Dwight Platt says. “That’s how she met Bayard Rustin.
“He was a tremendous speaker and had a very beautiful singing voice – he often ended his speeches with a song. She thought this was someone people around here, in south-central Kansas, ought to hear.”
Through the 1940s into the early 1950s, Rustin was working for the FOR. He stayed at the Platt home just east of the Bethel campus at least once, in 1947, documented by a short letter he wrote to Johnson.
Just before Joe became terminally ill, Johnson had found him sitting on the stairs, writing a poem, “Strolling.” After Joe’s death, Johnson asked her niece, Mary Lou Rich (Goertzen), to illustrate it, and she sent a copy of the illustrated poem to Rustin after his 1947 visit to Newton.
In a letter dated March 26, 1947, on FOR letterhead, Rustin writes to thank Johnson for her hospitality. “I know that life has not been easy for you, yet it was such a joy sharing in your home as one seldom finds,” he wrote.
“… I am having Joe’s verses framed; hung in my office. There was not only a love of life in them, but a real understanding, and I can understand what consolation those lines must have been to you after his death. For surely the end of life is to understand and to love. … Sincerely, Bayard Rustin”
Sometime in 1948, Platt says, his little sister Zona wrote and illustrated a story in which she assigned animal characters to political figures. Bayard Rustin is the Wise Old Owl, for whom everyone votes in the end because he is the best leader.
Rustin’s letter to Zona is dated Sept. 3, 1948:
“Thank you for your letter of August 19 and I want you to excuse my long delay in answering but we have been quite busy here. I read your stories [sic] on the animals and politics and liked it very much. You should continue to write stories, for story writing is like everything else – the longer and more we do it, probably the better we do it. …Your mother is not as close to the animals as you are, that is why she cannot understand why you think that A.J. Muste must look like a rabbit. I often think that all people look like one kind of animal or another. I have an uncle who looks just like a chipmunk and when he darts around the house very fast and [then] turns quickly with his head on the side, I am sometimes tempted to get nuts for him. … Give my love to all the family and all the animals and to the trees and bugs and to the rocks and the vegetable, for they all need our love very much. Sincerely, Bayard Rustin.”
In a postcard from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, dated Nov. 22, 1948, and addressed to “Mr. Dwight Platt and family,” Rustin wrote: “… The more I see of this distruction [sic] and moral decay of war – the more sure I become that we are right. … Love to all, Bayard Rustin.” The photo on the postcard is of the devastated Frankfurter Dom, bombed by the Allies in 1943 and 1944, with, however, its main spire still standing.
In 1949, Platt attained draft age. He did not register for Selective Service but instead “wrote a letter to President Truman explaining my position.” And for a while, nothing more happened.
The Annual Student Conference of the Institute of International Relations, Kansas chapter, took place in early 1950. Platt was then a sophomore at Bethel College.
Platt wrote to his mother and Zona, who were in Germany at the time, on Feb. 10, 1950, about the conference:
“The conference was very good. We had 118 students there from 12 different colleges – Friends, Bethel, McPherson [College], K.U. [University of Kansas], K.S.C. [Kansas State College, now University], College of Emporia, K.S.T.C. [Kansas State Teachers College] at Emporia, Bethany [College], Baker [University], Ottawa [University], Southwestern [College], Sterling [College]. There were over 60 there from Bethel and we served 108 at the banquet. I think there were some there to whom the position was somewhat new too. Mrs. Gebhardt said she heard one of the men ask if he couldn’t have just one little tiny bomb to drop on Russia. Bayard was superb as usual. He preached in the Tabor church Sunday morning and he was supposed to go to Inman in the evening. Reimer’s [sic] went with us to hear him Sunday morning since that was their home church. …”
In 1951, Selective Service finally “caught up with” Platt. “The FBI came around and interviewed me at Bethel,” he says. “I was indicted and charged with failure to register.”
In a letter dated Feb. 16, 1951, Johnson wrote to Rustin and Muste:
“Dwight was taken to jail yesterday evening but in about four hours we had him back home. Today he was back in school. He is out on $2500 bail. The people here are giving Dwight wonderful support. I think about fifty people have had a share in the bail fund.
“Dwight is supposed to appear before the judge next Friday (Feb. 23). …
“If you have any special suggestions of procedure send us a night letter at our expense. Dwight hasn’t lost his poise, doesn’t even lose sleep. I marvel at his readiness to accept the ordeal. I am sure that he is more ready for it now than he would have been a year and a half ago. Of course one reason is that he has much more support now than he would have had a year ago.”
An early 1951 telegram from Rustin to Johnson reads: “PEACE CARAVANERS FROM 10 STATES STAND WITH DWIGHT TODAY. BAYARD RUSTIN” “Peace Caravaners” could refer to the groups of high school- and college-age young people, the Peace Caravans, that the American Friends Service Committee organized to travel to different communities to speak about issues of war, international relations and conscription, although these were most active in the 1930s.
Platt was eventually sentenced to a year and a day, served at the federal prison in Springfield, Missouri. In a letter dated May 24, 1951, Rustin wrote to Johnson:
“I am very appreciative of your having sent me the clipping in relation to Dwight’s trial. It seems only yesterday, although it must have been ten or eleven years ago that I first visited and Dwight was just a little kid showing me his garden. Time certainly passes on. That is the way it is and as Dwight grew older he certainly has become a responsible and fine spirited person. There is no question in my mind but that he will come out of his year’s imprisonment an even stronger and wiser person than he is now.
“I know also that prison will leave indelibly in his mind how very unjust a great deal of our treatment of the offenders against society has become and he will no doubt spend a great deal of time the rest of his life doing what he can to change these conditions. …”
“The letter indicates he was planning to come to Kansas in the fall,” Platt says, “but of course I was not there [he was in prison in Missouri]. He could have visited after that, but I graduated in 1952 and went up to KU.”
Platt never saw Rustin again – except once, from a distance, on Aug. 28, 1963, when Dwight and LaVonne Platt and their son Richard in his stroller were among the 200,000 people stretched out along the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The Platt family has one other, recent, indirect connection to Bayard Rustin.
In March 2015, Zona Platt Galle and Omer Galle’s granddaughter, Kaitlyn Newell, came to visit her grandparents, bringing along a friend from Yale University days, Ashok Chandran. Chandran was then finishing his third year at Columbia University Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law.
While in the Galles’ North Newton home, Chandran noticed a collection of books about Bayard Rustin and mentioned that he was one of the organizers of the 2015 Paul Robeson Conference at Columbia Law, which was to be devoted to Rustin and, in particular, to his article “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” published in early 1965 in Commentary magazine. That led to Zona sharing about her family’s connections with Rustin and, eventually, to her giving Chandran Walter Naegle’s contact information. The Galles and Naegle had never met but had corresponded quite a bit via e-mail.
Chandran did contact Naegle to invite him to the April 10-11 conference and to participate in the opening roundtable, meant to be an overview of “From Protest to Politics” and its implications for modern grassroots protest movements such as Occupy, the Ferguson (Missouri) protests and the Arab Spring.
The Galles had told Chandran that if he succeeded in getting Naegle to come to the conference, they might come, too, and they did. Omer Galle wrote later in a report for interested friends and family: “In my opinion, Walter Naegle was a really good addition to this panel, in part because he was ‘less academic’ in his discussions, and had a really good sense of who Rustin was, where he came from (raised by his Quaker Grandparents in a small town outside of Philadelphia) which helped him develop the sense of purpose and strategy he had as an adult.”
At the close of his report, Galle wrote, “…it was especially nice to see this entire set of ‘conversations’ stimulated by a seminal article written 50 years ago by Bayard Rustin, who seemed to be an almost forgotten strategist for social change some 20 to 30 years ago.”