Bayard Rustin: The Inmate that the Prison Could Not Handle

Today’s post was written by Shaina Destine, a student intern in Textual Processing at the National Archives in College Park.
Bayard Rustin was the perpetual hero that history forgot.  I learned of Bayard Rustin in regards to his Civil Rights and Gay Rights work in my early 20s.  I heard about him being a Quaker and a Communist.  I even heard that he spent time in prison, however, his prison life is always glossed over.  I never knew the details.  In the last few weeks, I’ve spent time scanning his prison records from 1944 to 1946 (located in the RG 129 Notorious Offenders Files NAID 580698)when he was imprisoned for violating the Selective Service Act.
Intake mugshot of Bayard Rustin at the Lewisburg Penitentiary, August 3, 1945

Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He was raised by his maternal grandparents.  His grandmother was a Quaker and heavily influenced his philosophy throughout his life. Rustin is described as having “superior intelligence”, being “unusually clever”, and having “qualities of leadership that are outstanding”.  He attended Wilberforce University (an historically black college in Ohio) on a music scholarship.  He was expelled for organizing a strike then went on to Cheyney State Teachers College.  While there, he attended activist training at American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-founded social justice organization in Philadelphia. After that, he became involved with a number of defense efforts involving racial injustices.

Upon the commencement of the World War II draft, Bayard Rustin and his friends conscientiously objected to going to war and were promptly arrested. The entire file documenting his time in prison is kept in the Notorious Offenders File series in the file unit Rustin, Bayard (NAID 18558235). Rustin spent some time at  Ashland Federal Penitentiary.  While in Ashland, he worked in the Educational Department because his records showed that he had been in school from age 7 to age 25.  Upon his arrival at Ashland, it was noted in his files that:
it is believed that this inmate will continue to bring up racial problems in this institution, as has been his practice before being committed here, and it is further indicated by his actions that he is already engaged in practices of agitating other inmates on the race problem.  His adjustment in this institution is doubtful.


Admission summary for Bayard Rustin, Federal Correctional Institution Ashland, Kentucky. April 6, 1944
Rustin was transferred to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in March 1944.  Upon his arrival, Rustin “announced in a very arrogant manner that he had no interest in any aspect of the institutional program and he had no desire to discuss his transfer or his present situation”. He protested many issues at the prison.  He was constantly receiving disciplinary notices for “arousing and agitating” fellow prisoners in regards to various topics including medical care, mail policies, and the integration of the dining facilities.  He received administrative segregation a number of times over the years which did not stop his activism.  His first segregation report shows that five informants notified prison administration that Rustin has “attempted or performed…unnatural sexual relations” while in prison. Administration worried that his “sexual disorder” would ruin the morale of the prison. When it became well known, Rustin lost both the support of the prisoners and of the correctional officers who had begun following his leadership.  At some point, his descriptions in the records changed from “suspected homosexual” to “admitted homosexual” which I find interesting but I have not come across the incident that caused this change.
Special Progress Report for Bayard Rustin, January 1945


In March 1946, Rustin began a hunger strike in prison to protest what the prison described as “the race question”.  Rustin’s conduct record notes that
this inmate objects to institutional ruling in not allowing Whites and Negroes to intermingle in so far as eating and sleeping is concerned.   He will not walk in a line segregated or be segregated in the dining hall.  Today at noon meal he came out with the Qurantive group but refused to line up with the Negroes, but instead started to deliver an oration on his opinions of segregation, etc.  He was told to line up as required…but this he refused to do and then had to be excorted [sic] back to his cell.


After a total of ten disciplinary reports and a general stubbornness that the administration could not break down, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) whom Rustin had a run-in with previously when the CMO made the mistake of calling him “boy”, recommended that Rustin be transferred.  The CMO’s progress report says, “Except that he be kept in confinement or on punishment for the remainder of his time in this institution, we have exhausted all our means to deal with this case.  He cannot, therefore, be considered suitable for a correctional institution.  Transfer now seems desirable for his welfare as well as for the institution.  Transfer is recommended.”

His release progress report reads, “on March 25, 1946, [Rustin] agreed to discontinue his hunger strike and racial agitation in an attempt  to maintain a satifactory adjustment.  In order that he might be given the opportunity to adjust under different environment; therefore the Classification Committee recommended that he be transferred to the Farm Camp.”  Bayard Rustin was transferred to the Lewisburg Farm Camp that same day with the tentative release date of June 20, 1946.  He earned nine days of “Camp Good Time” and was released on June 11th.

Upon his departure, the prison offered Rustin a conditional release that would allow him to travel within New York only since that was where he was securing residence with publicity restrictions.  Rustin found this completely unacceptable.  He pushed back saying that as a field agent for the Fellowship of Reconciliation –with whom he had secured employment — would require full freedom of travel and also, he could not accept the publicity restriction because he planned on bringing attention to any parts of the Department of Justice that he felt required it. In the end, the Parole Executive suggested that the warden sign off on Rustin’s release lifting his restrictions and approving all movement.  They handed Rustin his release certificate with all these allowances but warned him that he would be returned to prison as a violator if he did not at least try to conform to some of the previously stated regulations of conditional release.  Upon hearing that, Rustin refused to sign the certificate so it was signed for him by the warden.  His last and final act of defiance was to completely disregard the suit that they picked for him to wear for his release.  He wore what he wanted to as he walked away from his incarceration.

Rustin fought the prisons from the beginning to the end.  He did not stop fighting for his freedom to make choices and be his own person even when some would argue that it was not necessary.  He is a hero who would not compromise – ever.  Also, do not forget that this was only TWO YEARS of his life.  He did so much more after this.  Bayard Rustin is a hero of epic proportions.


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4 thoughts on “Bayard Rustin: The Inmate that the Prison Could Not Handle

  1. JFKLP co-sponsors the Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast every April with the Boston AIDS Action Committee.

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