Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
by John D’Emilio
Free Press. 560 pp. $35.00
Perhaps the archetypal democratic activist of the last century, Bayard Rustin is best known as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, the famous demonstration that was highlighted by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and that spurred passage of the most important civil-rights legislation in the nation’s history. But Rustin’s role in that event hardly exhausts his importance. More than any other figure, he occupied a central place in each of the three major streams of American social protest: pacifism, the ideological Left, and the movement for racial equality. To each he made a luminous, indispensable contribution.
What makes Rustin’s career especially interesting, if also difficult to capture within conventional political categories, was not just his ability to connect these streams but the shifts and turns he took within them. He was an ardent pacifist who eventually turned against the pacifist movement, alienated by its moral absolutism, its fecklessness, and its isolation from the main currents of democratic activism. As a leftist, though he spent a brief period in the Communist youth movement, he evolved into a devoted opponent of Communism, becoming the leader of the most anti-Communist tendency within the American Left. And while he spent decades at the cutting edge of the racial-protest movement, often as its most radical tactician, he ended as the most unyielding adversary within the civil-rights movement of black militancy and separatism.
Since Rustin’s death in 1987, he has attracted increasing attention for yet another dimension of his life—the fact that he was an open homosexual. Indeed, his homosexuality threatened to compromise his political activities and influence, especially after he became a national figure during the heyday of the civil-rights movement. His two-month imprisonment in 1953 on charges of lewd vagrancy nearly ruined his career; it was repeatedly held against him by his political foes, most notably in 1963 when Senator Strom Thurmond tried to exploit it to discredit the March on Washington.
These experiences have also, however, made Rustin something of a hero to today’s gay-rights movement. In January, a major documentary film, Brother Outsider, was shown nationally on public television in observance of Martin Luther King Day; it has since made the circuit of gay and lesbian film festivals in the United States, Europe, and Canada. And now we have Lost Prophet, by John D’Emilio, a professor of “gender studies” at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like the film, the book is problematic; but it affords an opportunity to revisit an inexhaustibly fascinating career.
Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a Quaker town that had been an important stop for slaves fleeing to freedom on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. He was raised there by his grandparents, his unwed teenage mother having left home before he started school. In high school he was a star athlete and a top student, but it was his beautiful tenor voice that earned him a musical scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio, the first college for blacks in the United States. In the late 1930’s he moved to New York to pursue his growing interest in radical politics; there he managed to support himself by collaborating with the blues musician Josh White.
A natural movement builder, Rustin became an instant sensation in 1941 when he joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Christian pacifist organization headed by A.J. Muste. “He could move people with his singing,” D’Emilio writes, “impress them with his analytical powers, awe them with his courage, inspire with his vision.” It did not hurt that he was also strikingly handsome: describing him in interviews with D’Emilio, his associates from those days use words like electric, charismatic, prophetic, magnetic.
As an organizer, Rustin had the rare ability to operate simultaneously in different arenas. Thus, while networking with the middle-class white congregants associated with FOR, he also helped A. Philip Randolph mobilize support among working-class blacks for a March on Washington Movement (a precursor of things to come) and recruited college students to the newly launched Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), which first injected the Gandhian concept of nonviolent resistance into the struggle for racial justice. When he entered the federal penitentiary during World War II as a conscientious objector, Rustin immediately started a campaign against segregation within the prison facilities, prompting the warden to describe him as “an extremely capable agitator” possessing “in abundance the rare quality of leadership.”
By the time of the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which ignited the modern civil-rights movement, Rustin was already a seasoned activist. To the nascent battle he brought his vast contacts, a philosophy of nonviolent struggle and the skills for conducting it effectively, and an ability to think strategically on a national scale. Arriving in Montgomery as an emissary of the Northern pacifist movement, he immediately formed a bond with King, who had emerged as the boycott’s spokesman but who still lacked a battle plan and a larger vision. Rustin taught the boycotters to turn their indictments of segregation into proud symbols of resistance that would inspire others; in so doing, he “initiated the process,” in D’Emilio’s words, “that transformed King into the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the 20th century.”
The relationship with King allowed Rustin to remain in the background at a time when his own personal past, including his involvement in radical politics, could be used to damage the movement. But his low profile hardly impaired his effectiveness. He conceived and implemented a strategy for turning the Southern Christian Leadership Conference into a national movement against segregation; organized the Prayer Pilgrimage and the Youth March for Integrated Schools, which served as dress rehearsals for the subsequent March on Washington; and, together with his mentor Randolph, fashioned an alliance with the trade unions that supplied the civil-rights forces with resources and organization.
In late 1962, Randolph and Rustin conceived the March on Washington, designed both to commemorate the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and to revive a similar idea from the war years that Randolph had abandoned when President Franklin D. Roosevelt acceded to his demand to integrate the defense plants. Now, in the wake of demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama that led the Kennedy administration to introduce a comprehensive civil-rights bill, the idea of a mass mobilization in the capital loomed as a potentially historic opportunity. Rustin was the logical person to organize the March, although, inevitably, some civil-rights leaders resisted his appointment on the grounds of his past. Randolph resolved the dispute by saying that he would direct the March and name his own deputy, who would be Rustin. The rest is history.
D’Emilio writes that he was drawn to Rustin because of his interest in the decade of the 1960’s and his belief that Rustin’s story might illuminate some of its most wrenching conflicts. He was particularly taken, he says, with Rustin’s essay, “From Protest to Politics,” which appeared in COMMENTARY (February 1965) in the wake of the March on Washington. Appearing at a critical moment in the history of the struggle, this seminal work attempted to steer the civil-rights movement away from demonstrations and toward a broad program of coalition politics and economic uplift for the country’s poor.
D’Emilio remains troubled that Rustin’s advice was scorned by militants. Indeed, he considers it one of the “cruelest ironies” that “conservatives on the Right rather than progressives on the Left took up elements of Rustin’s ideas and ran with them.” This, however, is not what happened at all. Conservatives did not adopt Rustin’s political strategy or economic program; they just benefited politically from the backlash against the burgeoning race riots of the mid-to-late 60’s and the breakup of the liberal coalition over the war in Vietnam.
In any case, it was less Rustin’s political ideas than his image as (in the words of the publisher’s blurb) “a victim of homophobic prejudice” that really drew D’Emilio to write about him. Rustin has been “lost in the shadows of history,” he writes, because “he was a gay man in an era when the stigma attached to this was unrelieved.” But D’Emilio is wrong here, too. Apart from King and Malcolm X, few of the great figures from the civil-rights era are remembered today. Moreover, although it is true that Rustin stayed mostly behind the scenes in the wake of his arrest in 1953, he emerged as a national figure with the success of the March on Washington; if anything, Thurmond’s attack on him back-fired, actually elevating his standing in the movement. Finally, if Rustin was pushed aside in the years following the March, it was more because of his opposition to Black Power and his alliance with the anti-Communist AFL-CIO than because of his homosexuality.
Whether or not Rustin suffered because of his homosexuality, he never talked about it or raised it as a political issue. (D’Emilio acknowledges that he “was notoriously tight-lipped about his personal life” and “preserved to the end his generation’s habits of discretion.”) Certainly, his sexual behavior caused him no end of problems, including with Muste, who eventually demanded that he leave the FOR. But it is a vast exaggeration to claim, as D’Emilio does, that he “found his aspirations blocked, his talents contained, and his influence marginalized.” His very success as an activist belies this contention.
Where D’Emilio may be closer to the mark is in stating that Rustin suffered an “aching loneliness” that at times led him to seek out whatever companionship he could find, especially while on extended speaking tours. It is even possible that his pacifism was a way to master an inner rage growing out of his illegitimacy and abandonment by his mother, an observation made by a therapist who saw Rustin after his arrest in 1953. But who knows? What we can be sure of is that he abhorred thinking of himself as a victim. He enjoyed life too much, knew that psychological crutches could be more harmful than the injuries themselves, and regarded the idea of victimization as more threatening to black dignity than white racism, which could be overcome only by people with pride and self-confidence.
In general, though Lost Prophet presents an immense amount of personal detail, and offers no end of quotations from friends and associates to the effect that “there was a magic about Bayard” and that he “just lit up everything,” it fails to capture his robust, irreverent personality. In this regard, it cannot compare with the documentary Brother Outsider, which presents Rustin in his own person and to the background music of his own rich voice. To watch, for example, as he lit up the faces of children at an Indochinese refugee camp in Thailand with a rendition of “Oh, Freedom” is to understand far more about him than D’Emilio conveys in thousands of inadequate words.
The real problem with Lost Prophet, however, is not its failure to capture Rustin’s personality but its insistence on seeing him as what he was not: a thwarted victim, or a permanent rebel against an unjust system. Although D’Emilio is clearly drawn to the militant pacifism of the young Bayard Rustin, he has great difficulty understanding his subject’s later political development, his growth and adaptation to changing circumstances. To his credit, he declines to side with those who accused Rustin of selling out in the aftermath of the March on Washington; but he cannot hide his own ambivalence, or his worry that as the political ground shifted in the 1960’s, the claims made against Rustin “came to seem credible.”
D’Emilio is especially baffled by Rustin’s failure to take part in the movement against the war in Vietnam. This he attributes in part to Rustin’s stubborn refusal to reconsider his strategy of building a majority coalition with labor and the Democrats (both of whom supported the war, the former for longer than the latter); in the end, he calls it a “mystery” he cannot fathom. His mystification is understandable. At the time, it was shared by Rustin’s former allies in the radical Left, who never forgave his movement away from a pacifism that was equally opposed to both sides in the cold war to an ideological anti-Communism that was prepared to make moral and political distinctions between the democratic West, with all its flaws, and Soviet totalitarianism.
Given D’Emilio’s inability to understand or appreciate the later Rustin, it is not surprising that he glosses over the last two decades of his life, when Rustin’s focus shifted from social protest to international human rights. D’Emilio attributes the shift in focus to the decline of liberalism and the divisive tactics of the Nixon White House, which “cripple[d] progressive political mobilizations.” In fact, the world had changed, and the cutting edge of the struggle to expand human freedom—which was always where Rustin wanted to be—had moved from the streets of Birmingham to the shipyards of Gdansk and other distant locales where people were either fleeing oppression or working to open closed systems.
D’Emilio does briefly mention the various global missions Rustin undertook with Freedom House and the International Rescue Committee. But he omits entirely his chairmanship of Social Democrats, USA—which was his ideological base—as well as his founding of Project South Africa, an initiative to promote the peaceful dismantling of apartheid to which Rustin devoted a good part of his last years before his death in 1987. Finally, noting Rustin’s outspoken support for Israel and his formation of the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC), D’Emilio cannot help reminding us that here, too, Rustin’s stance “troubled many of his old associates in the peace movement.”
So it did. But Rustin had moved far beyond his early pacifism and had become acutely sensitive to the evil of anti-Semitism, something he had not adequately appreciated when he resisted the war against Hitler as a conscientious objector. Altogether, he had the ability to learn from experience, and he never shrank from accepting his own vulnerabilities. In the course of his life he moved toward America; but, thanks to the changes he himself helped crucially to bring about in our society, America also moved toward him. Whether he was a prophet in his own time is a matter of judgment. But to say that he was lost could not be farther from the truth.