Peace Collection brings Rustin exhibit to McCabe

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McCabe Library is currently displaying an exhibition on the life and work of renowned social activist Bayard Rustin. The exhibit is entitled “Bayard Rustin: Passionate Prophet for Racial Equality, Peace and Social Justice” and will remain on display on McCabe’s first floor until June 15. The materials featured in the exhibit were drawn entirely from Swarthmore College’s world-renowned Peace Collection.

Rustin, a native of West Chester, PA and a Quaker, was born in 1912. He was a pacifist, conscientious objector, early freedom rider, anti-nuclear activist, internationalist, worker for racial equality and supporter of gay rights, most famous for his prominent role in the American Civil Rights movement. He was a mentor for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King made his immortal “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Throughout his life, Rustin espoused a philosophy of nonviolence, advocating for the use of nonviolent practices of resistance in both the Civil Rights movement and other protest movements.

His influence was most profoundly felt through the techniques of non-violent resistance that he taught to Dr. King and other leaders of the 1950s movement and which he implemented in his role as a key strategist for the movement in the 1960s.

Head Peace Collection Librarian and curator of the exhibit Wendy Chmielewski remarked that popular interest was a major inspiration for its assembly.

“Because 2012 marks the centenary year of his birth, we had a lot of inquiries from people interested in seeing an exhibition on his life and work,” said Chmielewski.

On display in the exhibit’s glass cases are a wide variety of documents and artifacts chronicling Rustin’s dedicated and profuse work in the pursuit of social justice in diverse areas.

In addition to important documents, the exhibit also highlight’s Rustin’s musical and artistic interests. LP recordings of Rustin performing spirituals and songs from both American folk and English Elizabethan traditions as well as sheet music for the Rustin-composed protest song “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow” are notable features.

Chmielewski stated that the expansive holds of the Peace Collection afforded a wide array of significant primary material for display.

“Rustin was active in many different movements and his lifelong commitment to non-violent social change assured that a wealth of material pertaining to his work have been archived in the Peace Collection,” said Chmielewski.

Friends Librarian Chris Densmore noted that Rustin may have been the originator of the oft-repeated phrase, “Speak Truth to Power,” stating that “Wendy has researched the origins of that phrase which originally appeared in a Quaker pamphlet but now seems to be used almost everywhere.”

In addition to his relation to nearby West Chester and the Quaker community, Rustin has strong historical connections to the college, which hosted him as a guest speaker in the fall of 1949 at a Collection.

There, Rustin spoke about his experiences in the Journey of Reconciliation of 1947, a protest against segregation in interstate transportation that would inspire and serve as a model for the Freedom Ride protests of the 1950s.

In a retrospective article appearing in the March 2012 issue of Friends Journal, copies of which are featured with the exhibit, Swarthmore graduate Newton Garver ’51 reflected on Rustin’s Collection speech and on his resonant words concerning the effectiveness of non-violence.

Garver praised Rustin and his associates in social activism as “seasoned veterans of direct action who knew better than most people how to absorb unjust violence without either a cowardly or a violent response.”

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