Happy birthday, Bayard Rustin!

Ever since I first learned about civil rights leader Rustin—in college, because the Chicago Catholic school system’s Black history curriculum wasn’t especially robust—I’ve always been taken with one thing in particular:

The man embodied what it means to ask the question, “Why not?” He asked it, and he inspired decades of student activists to do the same. 

To Rustin, marches for the rights of Black citizens in cities and towns around the country were only the first step toward making changes for those citizens. He knew these demonstrations were an opportunity for something more, something bigger. 

So he asked, “Why not? Why not do something that gets to the heart of our national problem on the biggest stage possible? Why not go big?” So he put together something bigger. 

As the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin put an emphasis on “strategic nonviolence,” as NPR notes:

“As we follow this form of mass action and strategic nonviolence,” he said, “we will not only put pressure on the government, but we will put pressure on other groups which ought by their nature to be allied with us.”

“There had been many marches from the South,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington D.C. told NPR. “But calling people from all over the country to come to Washington, the capital of the United States, was unheard of.”

Civil rights and voting rights legislation followed for years from Congress. 

Sound familiar? Student-led protest movements around the world have since borrowed from Rustin’s playbook, from China’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 to the March For Our Lives and Black Lives Matter movements today. 

Last week’s Black Male Teachers Matter featured Travis Bristol, who posed an important question to educators and community leaders that stuck with me: “Who are the Bayard Rustins in your group?”

As we celebrate Rustin on his birthday, remember to always ask those important questions. Who are the Rustins in your classroom? Why not make space for them? Why not listen to them? Why not go big? 


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