Bayard Rustin Speaking Truth to Power


By Laurie Paolicelli

“We need, in every city, a group of angelic troublemakers.” — Bayard Rustin, 1963

Bayard Rustin points to a map showing a line for the 1963 march in Washington.

The heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are many, but none more important — and possibly among the least remembered — than Bayard Rustin, intellectual engineer behind the March on Washington. He was also a pacifist during World War II, led crusades against atomic weapons in France, anti-Semitism in West Germany, and assisted in the independence campaigns of several African nations. 

But his role in the struggle for civil rights in America gradually diminished. There were concerns that his being gay, as well as a former member of the Communist Party, could hurt the movement. The irony could not be more blatant: fighting for one set of rights, he lost some of his own.

As his life partner Walter Naegle says, “Bayard [pronounced “BI-yard] was one of these people that had a lot of baggage.”

Journey of Reconciliation stop in Chapel Hill.

Rustin came through Chapel Hill with some of that baggage in April 1947. He had organized an interracial freedom ride protesting Jim Crow bus segregation called the Journey of Reconciliation. As he and the other riders attempted to board a bus to continue the journey to Greensboro, they were attacked. Four of the riders — Andrew Johnson, James Felmet, Bayard Rustin, and Igal Roodenko — were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move from the front of the bus. Following a May 1947 trial in Orange County, the four men were convicted and sentenced to 30 days on the chain gang. The convictions were later upheld by Orange County Superior Court and then the N.C. Supreme Court.

Their names weren’t cleared until June 17, 2022, in a special ceremony in Orange County Superior Court. Renee Price, then chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and current District 50 representative in the NC House, learned that the charges against the men arrested in Chapel Hill, in what many Civil Rights historians consider the first Freedom Ride, had never been dropped.

“They were arrested and convicted for violating laws that were in fact a violation to humanity, a violation to human dignity, and a violation to freedom and justice for all,” said Price, who organized the event. “Seventy-five years later we are heralding the truth that the participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were right.”

“One thing you will not hear today is arguments,” Judge Allen Baddour said at 2022 Ceremony in Hillsborough. “Today is an opportunity to make amends for injustice that occurred in 1947.” Baddour, who was not even born when this happened, was brought to tears.

“Today, I am vacating these convictions, and I am dismissing these charges,” Baddour said. 

And history has begun to take another look at Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin behind MLK, Jr. 1963.

In 2013, 50 years after the March on Washington, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who said, “Today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory, by taking our place in his march towards true equality.”

George Wolfe is the director of the new film “Rustin,” now on Netflix. The film tells the story behind the March on Washington and Rustin’s part in it. Wolfe describes Rustin as “an American hero, who not only contributed heavily to one of the most significant peaceful demonstrations that has ever happened in this country, but a man who also wrote the book on how to stage such an event.”

“Everybody needs to know who this man is,” Wolfe said. “He should be taught in every school.”

“Rustin” is now playing on Netflix.

Working out of a Harlem brownstone called the Utopia Neighborhood Club House, Rustin and a small staff pulled the march together in less than two months. Eleanor Holmes Norton (then a student at Yale Law School, now Washington D.C.’s delegate in Congress) was tasked with finding buses to bring people to the march. Asked to describe the march, Norton replied, “It was the most gratifying day I can ever remember. Without Rustin, there wouldn’t have been the march. Without the march, there wouldn’t have been the movement. Without the movement, you wouldn’t have had the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the ’65 Voting Rights Act.”

The week after the march, Rustin was on the cover of Life Magazine.

A producer of the film is Higher Ground, former President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company.

Says former President Barack Obama, “What I hope Rustin achieves is to remind this new, young generation of activists how much they can accomplish.”

Bayard Rustin has been credited with coining the phrase “Speaking truth to power.” And this is what he did all his life. Rustin: an unsung hero of the civil rights movement and a reminder to us all of the continuing struggle for justice and equality.

Orange County NC leaders Renee Price and Judge Allen Baddour.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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