Five Leadership Lessons Learned from Bayard Rustin

Five Leadership Lessons Learned from Bayard Rustin

By: James McKissic, President of ArtsBuild

You have to join every other movement for the freedom of people. – Bayard Rustin

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my personal heroes, Bayard Rustin. Affectionately known as Mr. March on Washington by his friends and colleagues, Rustin was one of a few openly LGBT leaders of the civil rights movement of the early to mid-20th century. Rustin was a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., much of King’s vision and understanding of nonviolent social change was influenced by Rustin, a Quaker. Rustin is most remembered for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom. Yes, that march was organized by a Black, gay man. Over the course of my professional life, I’ve learned a lot about leadership from studying Rustin. Here are five things I’d like to share:

1. You Don’t Always Have to be Out Front.

Being a leader doesn’t always mean you’re going to be out front. Rustin and his team organized one of the most important public acts of protest of the entire 20th century. Though many people remember what Mahalia sang, what John Lewis said or King’s landmark “I Have Dream Speech,” most people have never heard of Bayard Rustin. A leader will forgo recognition, instead choosing to lift up the accomplishments of the team. To ensure the next generation gains recognition and opportunities that propel them into future leadership roles. We grow as leaders, not only by building organizations, businesses and institutions, but by growing others.

2. Believe in Something.

Whether it’s God, your organization’s mission or your favorite football team – believe in something. In a 1960 letter, King told a colleague: “We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value.” For Rustin, his belief in nonviolence guided his life and every human interaction. What do you believe in? What brings you solace and joy? What provides the lens through which you see this world and your place in it? A leader believes in something outside of themselves and uses it as a motivator, a guidebook and a compass in professional and personal interactions.

3. Stay Grounded.

Later in Rustin’s career he led the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which supported African American’s membership in unions. During that time, Rustin promoted his view that future progress for African Americans rested on alliances between Black people, liberals, labor and religious groups. Rustin was grounded; he knew the world

didn’t revolve around one social justice issue. To make progress Rustin knew he needed to be grounded in himself and his identity.

4. Grow Where You Are Planted.

Rustin, the consummate pacifist, was arrested for failing to report to the draft board and refusing alternate military service. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but only served 26 months because he organized the other prisoners to demand better treatment and integrated prison accommodations. He was so influential, and such a danger to the prison status quo, that he was released early. Rustin could have let his time incarcerated break him, instead he tapped into his purpose and worked for social justice and equitable treatment from inside the prison industrial complex. As we grow professionally, we might not always find ourselves in the ideal situations or part of top tier teams. Leaders, lead wherever they land. No matter the circumstance or the environment, there are always people to serve and improvements to be made. Find those opportunities and ride them out until the next opportunity comes your way.

5. Sometimes the World Isn’t Ready for You . . . Yet.

I’m not completely sure the world of 2021 is ready for Black, gay male leaders. But, I know for sure – to take a phrase from Oprah – the world of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was not ready. Rustin was often shunned and shamed due to his sexual orientation. I think about Black LGBT leaders of the last century like Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin and how they made a place in this world, a world that would rather not dealt with them at all. Oftentimes, as leaders, we will feel out of place, unsettled by things we see going on around us. I’ve learned to stay the course and you can do the same by: doing your best, speaking clearly and directly, leading by example being yourself and inhabiting your truth. Respect and growth come from following your life’s mission, believing in something bigger than yourself and making space for others. Sometimes the world isn’t ready for you, but you can be ready for it – and you can make it ready for those who come after you.

If you’d like to learn more about Bayard Rustin and his impact on American History, I recommend that you read “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin” which is available on Amazon and your local independent bookseller.

Share this post