The following letter was written by Bayard Rustin in 1943. AFSC is fortunate to have a copy in its archives, which you can find on our website. “Letter to His Draft Board” was republished in the book Black Fire (Quaker Press of Friends General Conference) in 2011, and last year, Quaker Press published a children’s book about Bayard Rustin entitled, Bayard Rustin: Invisible Activist, co-written by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael Long.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and was taught Quaker faith and practice by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. Rustin began his life of social justice activism at an early age and had to navigate the challenges of being an openly gay black man, a conscientious objector, and a former communist. Rustin advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., worked with A. Philip Randolph, and organized numerous marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. He was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and a co-founder of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Today, we honor the lasting influence of his courageous life (Black Fire, 151-152).
Queries for worship and discussion can be found at the bottom of the page. – Greg Elliott
Local Board No. 63
2050 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY
For eight years I have believed war to be impractical and a denial of our Hebrew-Christian tradition. The social teachings of Jesus are: (1) Respect for personality; (2) Service the “summum bonum” [Latin: “the highest good”] (3) Overcoming evil with good; and (4) The brotherhood of man. These principles as I see it are violated by participation in war.
Believing this, and having before me Jesus’ continued resistance to that which he considered evil, I was compelled to resist war by registering as a Conscientious Objector in October 1940.
However, a year later, September 1941, I became convinced that conscription as well as war equally is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. I must resist conscription also.
On Saturday, November 13, 1943, I received from you an order to report for a physical examination to be taken Tuesday, November 16 at eight o’clock in the evening. I wish to inform you that I cannot voluntarily submit to an order springing from the Selective Service and Training Act for War.
There are several reasons for this decision, all stemming from the basic spiritual truth that men are brothers in the sight of God:
1) War is wrong. Conscription is a concomitant of modern war. Thus conscription for so vast an evil as war is wrong.
2) Conscription for war is inconsistent with freedom of conscience, which is not merely the right to believe, but to act on the degree of truth that one receives, to follow a vocation which is God-inspired and God-directed.
Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by non-violent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the State directs that I shall do its will; which of these dictates can I follow—that of God or that of the State? Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the State. But when the will of God and the will of the State conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. If I cannot continue in my present vocation, I must resist.
3) The Conscription Act denies brotherhood—most basic New Testament teaching. Its design and purpose is to set men apart—German against American, American against Japanese. Its aim springs from a moral impossibility that ends justify means, that from unfriendly acts a new and friendly world can emerge.
In practice further, it separates black from white—those supposedly struggling for a common freedom. Such a separation also is based on the moral error that racism can overcome racism, that evil can produce good, that men virtually in slavery can struggle for a freedom they are denied. This means that I must protest racial discrimination in the armed forces, which is not only morally indefensible but also in clear violation of the Act. This does not, however, imply that I could have a part in conforming to the Act if discrimination were eliminated.
Segregation, separation, according to Jesus, is the basis of continuous violence. It was such an observation which encouraged him to teach, “It has been said to you in the olden times that thou shalt not kill, but I say unto you, do not call a man a fool”—and he might have added: “For if you do call him such, you automatically separate yourself from him and violence begins.” That which separates man from his brother is evil and must be resisted.
I admit my share of guilt for having participated in the institutions and ways of life which helped bring fascism and war. Nonetheless, guilty as I am, I now see as did the Prodigal Son that it is never too late to refuse longer to remain in a non-creative situation. It is always timely and virtuous to change—to take in all humility a new path.
Though joyfully following the will of God, I regret that I must break the law of the State. I am prepared for whatever may follow.
I herewith return the material you have sent me, for conscientiously I cannot hold a card in connection with an act I no longer feel able to accept and abide by.
Today I am notifying the Federal District Attorney of my decision and am forwarding to him a copy of this letter.
I appreciate now as in the past your advice and consideration, and trust that I shall cause you no anxiety in the future. I want you to know I deeply respect you for executing your duty to God and country in these difficult times in the way you feel you must. I remain
P.S. I am enclosing samples of material which from time to time I have sent out hundreds of persons, Negro and white, throughout our nation. This indicates one type of the creative work to which God has called me.
Rustin writes, “Segregation, separation, according to Jesus, is the basis of continuous violence…That which separates man from his brother is evil and must be resisted.” Do you see “segregation” and “separation” at work in your meeting/church, school, neighborhood, and town/city? How might Spirit be leading you and your community to address this “basis of continuous violence?”
Rustin spent two years in prison for his resistance to conscription (the draft) and his Conscientious Objection. Does your faith/faith community/Spirit give you the strength to stand up for what you believe despite the consequences? Why or why not?
Rustin describes conscription as “a concomitant of war.” How does Quaker faith and practice guide us to respond to that which is “a concomitant” of today’s wars—an ever-growing Defense Budget, unjust immigration policies, mass incarceration, and Israel/Palestine (to name a few)?
"Bayard Rustin," Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights, edited by Harold D. Weaver, Jr., Paul Kriese, and Stephen W. Angell, with Anne Steere Nash; forward by Emma Lapsansky-Werner. Quaker Press of Friends General Conference (Philadelphia, PA: 2011).