Black History Month: A Letter from “I Must Resist” by Bayard Rustin

Excerpted from I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters

Rustin to Beverly White

In this philosophical letter to an activist from St. Paul, Minnesota, Rustin makes a careful distinction between nonresistance and nonviolent resistance-the same type of distinction that Martin Luther King, Jr., would later emphasize in his writings and speeches on peace. Rustin also makes another nuanced point that King would stress time and again-that nonviolent activists do not cause violence, but bring to the surface the violence that has long been simmering underneath.

May 3, 1950

I am not sure just what words I used at the conference, but I do remember that the point which your card suggests was widely discussed. I noticed that a number of the students who were of Brethren and Mennonite background were of the opinion that social evils could be dealt with by nonresistance, whereas it is my feeling that they should be dealt with by nonviolent resistance. It was in attempting to meet this point that I made it clear that force of a psychological nature is always involved in social change.

For example, I have knowingly sat at the table… and in the front of a bus in the South with white people, aware of the fact that when I did so, I was bringing to the surface a fear in them which was in a sense more profound than if I had struck them, and this is in part due to the fact that if I had struck them, they would have been on familiar ground and able to defend themselves and to strike me back. But the fact that I sat there in a way so that they did not see their way clear to strike me made them more fearful than if I had struck them.

Now I tried, secondly, to make it clear that in a sense forcing them into that position did not create violence but rather brought already-existing violence to the surface so that they recognized its existence and were able to deal with it. I pointed out that there are many, many times – and this is almost always true in the South or in any other situation where people have been separated for long periods of time and where general brutality is accepted – when basic social change will also involve a vast deal of physical violence, and the pacifist is not a man who is afraid of violence nor in a sense opposed to it because often social change cannot be made except under situations where violence is to a degree inevitable. The pacifist is opposed to using violence, but he must be prepared to accept it as a part of social change, knowing that social change is often impossible without it.

For example, when we went into the buses of the South, we knew that there would be some violent reactions brought to the surface. Now when we went into that situation, we also had to accept violence unto ourselves’ but unless we were naive, we also knew that the lynch mob at Chapel Hill, which was frustrated from getting us, might very well wreak its vengeance upon other Negroes in the community, and the fact is that they responded with violence not only to Negro members of the community but to white ones.

Separation, it seems to me, is the chief sin precisely because violence is automatically the result of separation and ostracism between individuals or groups or nations, and my point was that whenever there is such separation and such automatic violence it is naive to believe that you can deal with this violence without challenging people and without bringing that violence to the surface. And when each physical and psychological violence is brought to the surface, the pacifist would be prepared to take it unto himself and to recognize, as Jesus did, that you cannot take a stand for truth and justice without automatically involving other people and causing some suffering for them any more than you or I could be COs where our mother or father was opposed to us without causing for them great travail in their local community. And yet we sometimes fail to reckon with all these factors.

Sincerely yours,

Bayard Rustin

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imustresistI Must Resist:  Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters was published on the centennial of the Bayard Rustin’s birth, and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin has been called the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement. A master strategist and tireless activist, he is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the U.S. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement and played a deeply influential role in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., helping to mold him into an international symbol of nonviolence.

Here we have Rustin in his own words in a collection of over 150 of his letters; his correspondents include the major progressives of his day — for example, Eleanor Holmes Norton, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ella Baker, and of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.Read the introduction and first two chapters here.

 

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