In a room filled with admirers, friends and curious constituents, State Representative Byron Rushing reflected about his life as a social justice activist and politician in the Massachusetts State House, in a talk called My Life and Debt in the Massachusetts State House. The legislator quickly described himself as one of a select group of politicians, paid by constituents to represent them fairly. But “we are all politicians,” Rushing declared, though not necessarily paid. When teenagers succeed in convincing their parents to have a later curfew, they engage politically to get a rule changed. Changing rules or making new ones is all part of being politically active.
Rushing, who is up for reelection this November after 35 years in the Massachusetts House, said that what he engages in for his constituents comes out of his "understanding of who is in the 'we' of 'we the people.'" "If John Quincy Adams was here today, he’d be very surprised to see me in the Massachusetts legislature," he said. "That is my 'debt' to all those who fought to be in the 'we,' and my guide to the politics I engage in."
As soon as the words "we, the people," were written down centuries ago, no one could agree on who “we” was, Rushing said. "When the Constitution was written, most of the adults in the US could not vote. People knew way back when that 'we' was not everybody. The most gracious thing in our politics is," said Rushing, "that people could find a way to be in the “we.” Even though Thomas Jefferson owned and sexually abused people, he said, among them were those who heard the words, 'we the people' and figured out ways, as he put it, "to be the 'we'".
Rushing, currently the Assistant Majority Leader of the Massachusetts State House, has represented the Ninth Suffolk district since 1983, succeeding the influential South End social justice activist, Mel King, who spoke at the South End library last year. Rushing sponsored the law to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public schools, as well as the original gay rights bill in Massachusetts. He also led the effort for Massachusetts state pension funds to invest in the development of poor communities in the state, among many other efforts to promote equal justice in the state.
During the 1960s he was active in the civil rights movement, working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Syracuse, NY, and as a community organizer for the Northern Student Movement in Boston. He directed a group of organizers, Roxbury Associates, who helped found the Lower Roxbury Community Corporation, one of the first community development corporations in the nation, and began some of the earliest organizing efforts in black communities against the war in Vietnam.
From 1972 to 1985, Rushing was president of the Museum of Afro-American History, when it purchased and began the restoration of the African Meeting House, the oldest black church building in the United States. In 1979, Rushing oversaw the lobbying effort in Congress to establish the Boston African American National Historical Site, a component of the National Park Service. Byron led the Museum in the study of the history of Roxbury for which the Museum conducted the archaeological investigation of the Southwest Corridor for the MBTA. As a legislator he sponsored the creation of Roxbury Heritage State Park and occasionally leads walking tours of African American and working class neighborhoods in Boston and Roxbury.
Having attended Harvard College and MIT, Rushing is an elected deputy to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church; a founding member of the Episcopal Urban Caucus; and serves on the boards of the Episcopal Women's Caucus and the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice. His priorities are and have been human and civil rights and liberties; local human, economic and housing development; environmental justice and health care.
In 2010, Rushing was appointed a trustee of the Boston Public Library by Mayor Thomas Menino, who was under fire at the time over his unfortunate attempt to close up to a third of the BPL branches. His appointment was seen by library advocates as a signal that, as long as Rushing was a BPL trustee, no libraries would be closed in Boston.