Bayard Rustin’s Life in Struggle

John D’Emilio
Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
(Free Press, 2003)

Bayard Rustin, best known for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, was not only one of the most intelligent political strategists and tacticians in 20th century American history, but he was also the most interesting. John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin is the most recent attempt to understand Rustin’s remarkable career as a social activist.

Born in 1912 and raised by Quaker grandparents, Rustin campaigned against racial segregation with the Young Communist League in the mid-1930s, leaving the League when its focus shifted to defending the Soviet Union. In the early 1940s, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a group of black and white activists who experimented with Gandhi’s strategies of non-violence in order to create a particularly American way of fighting segregation. During World War II, Rustin served three years in a federal penitentiary as a conscientious objector. In the mid-1950s, Rustin taught a young Martin Luther King, Jr. the mechanics of nonviolent protest during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, insisting that King give up his armed bodyguards; Rustin later planned strategy for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

D’Emilio pays encyclopedic attention to Rustin’s early life, culling from a decade of archival research, including interviews with friends and colleagues, personal letters, and official FBI reports. D’Emilio fluidly places the varied details of his subject in admirable historical context, showing us how Rustin grew from his socially conscious upbringing in West Chester, PA, into one of the most influential protest figures of the 1950s and ’60s.

D’Emilio maintains that the major reason Rustin is “lost” (as his title suggests) or absent from seminal historical texts and public discourse is that he was an openly gay man during an era that criminalized gay sexuality. An historian of gender studies and particularly of gay history, D’Emilio makes it clear that without embracing fully the fact that Rustin was gay, one cannot understand the political and personal setbacks he faced during his lifetime of political activism. Rustin, however, ultimately may be less of a “victim” than D’Emilio’s interpretation suggests.

Rustin’s sexuality, of course, caused him to face numerous obstacles. After 12 years of service, for example, the FOR fired him after his arrest for lewd vagrancy (performing oral sex in the back seat of a car) in 1953. The next year, Rustin was a crucial writer of the prophetic Quaker indictment of American militarism and foreign policy “Speak Truth to Power” (a phrase which has reappeared recently as “Speak Truth to Empire”) but he insisted his name not be listed, avoiding any discredit to the FOR due to his association. In 1960, he was forced to resign from a prominent position with King when Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to spread a rumor that King and Rustin were lovers.

Only after Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington, D’Emilio argues, did Rustin begin to “emerge from the shadows that homophobia cast over his career.” Several weeks before the March, Senator Strom Thurmond attempted to publicly discredit the March by attacking Rustin as a draft-dodger, a Communist, and a “pervert.” The first two issues could be easily explained. But, rather than give in to Thurmond’s gay-baiting, this time the movement’s leaders (including King) knew Rustin was the only man who could organize the March, and they stood by their man.

While D’Emilio offers an invaluable perspective, especially in articulating the prevailing mid-20th century notions of sexuality, his singular focus on Rustin as a victim of homophobia makes him underplay the affirming nature of Rustin’s existence as a gay man. Most people respected and admired Bayard Rustin. He was charming, full of life, and utterly indispensable to the movement. When the FOR fired him, the War Resisters League (WRL) immediately hired him for his incredible abilities to organize and strategize political campaigns. In the countless letters D’Emilio allows us to read, the main issues were about Rustin’s work, and his activist colleagues seemed to pay little attention to his sexuality.

What there was great debate about, and what was not so easy to accept, was his promiscuity and public sexuality—which branded him as a sexual deviant first in prison and then after the 1953 arrest. Several attempts were made by friends and colleagues to convince him to keep his sexuality private, not necessarily to squelch it altogether. Their moral positioning against the establishment could not afford scandal or reproach.

Rustin himself seemed to understand this distinction. When Strom Thurmond attacked him, Rustin responded: “The Senator does not care if I am a criminal, a murderer, or a pervert; the Senator is concerned with attacking the movement. He will not get away with it.” Showing his profound disdain for such tactics, Rustin routinely helped both his allies (e.g. King) and his political adversaries (e.g. Eldridge Cleaver) avoid political smear campaigns.

D’Emilio writes that the FBI put him on their Cold War Security Index, meaning that Rustin was on a list of individuals dangerous enough to be jailed during a national emergency. “Well over a thousand civil rights activists fell within the Bureau’s loose definition of security threat.…With the knowledge it secretly acquired, it could disrupt events, sow dissension in organizations, ruin relationships, and destroy the credibility of individuals.” But most people working towards progressive social change were targeted, and Rustin actually had three counts against him—being left, gay, and having once associated with the Communists. The FBI, for example, notified the press when Rustin went to the Soviet Mission to the UN to meet a peace delegation from Eastern Europe. The next day, The Daily News ran an editorial criticizing Rustin for “consorting with the Soviets.” Such was the nature of Cold War politics.

After the 1963 March on Washington and the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964, Rustin came to believe that the period for public protest had come to an end. In his seminal essay “From Protest to Politics,” which D’Emilio admires as “prophetic,” Rustin argued that now that black people could legally sit in the restaurant, they needed to be able to afford to sit there. And what was needed was a coalition of progressive forces to move the Democratic Party forward.

Most of his left-liberal friends did not follow his lead, and D’Emilio aptly portrays the final third of Rustin’s life as one in which his reputation among his former allies was routinely questioned. After decades of working outside the system, they simply could not accept working within the system. The pacifist community never forgave him for his quietude regarding Vietnam. Rustin also fiercely opposed the identity politics of the Black Power movement, arguing that wearing an Afro would not affect Congress, and he instead promoted coalition politics and integration into the political establishment. Black nationalists called him an Uncle Tom.

Yet, D’Emilio explains, even as Rustin was taking what appeared to be a more “conservative” turn, he remained committed to social justice. Rustin was making radical and ambitious demands for a basic redistribution of wealth in American society, including universal healthcare, the abolition of poverty, and full employment.

Given his extensive coverage on Rustin’s work up to the late ’60s, it is a shame that D’Emilio doesn’t give equal importance to this final period of Rustin’s life, which is still rife with dilemmas that continue to baffle the left today. Accusations continue to exist about Rustin going soft in old age, sucking up to the establishment, being funded by the AFL-CIO (a strong supporter of anti-Communist militarism), and becoming a political insider. Most baffling to his former Left allies, and least explained in D’Emilio’s book, was Rustin’s steady support of Israel. In the wake of the Holocaust, Rustin believed very strongly that Jews needed their own homeland. He felt a solidarity between black and Jewish oppression, and organized the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee in 1975. Rustin wrote many articles and columns on his views of the situation in the Middle East, which warrant a healthy reading within the context of the situation before his death in 1987. Rustin, in fact, was a prolific columnist and essayist during the last three decades of his life, and himself provided many of the answers to these questions, but, for reasons unclear, D’Emilio decided not to delve into these important source materials.

D’Emilio writes that he began the project because of his interest in the social fervent and political upheavals of the 1960s. But I would argue that the final chapters of Rustin’s life, after his shift from protest to politics, merit much more consideration if we are to restore Rustin’s lost place in American history. His later years, perhaps, also reveal the “prophetic” nature of Rustin’s activism, which anticipated the coalition politics of today. And they further illustrate how Rustin overcame multiple prejudices in his lifelong fight for social justice.

Contributor

Mridu Chandra

Mridu Chandra is a filmmaker and writer living in New York.

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