From Protest to Patronage
He subsequently elaborated on this view in a remarkable essay published in 1965 in Commentary, "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement." Anticipating William Julius Wilson by more than a decade, Rustin argued that blacks had already entered an era in which economics would play a more important role than traditional racism in undermining racial equality. Although the civil rights movement had largely succeeded in destroying the legal foundations of racism, he asserted, it had barely touched upon the conditions of black impoverishment, joblessness, ghettoization and inferior skills and education--conditions that could persist even with the waning of old-fashioned bigotry. In Rustin's view, "de facto segregation in our most fundamental socioeconomic institutions" did not lend itself to the moralistic protest orientation of the civil rights movement. What was needed was a political strategy geared toward patiently reinforcing and enlarging the grand coalition that produced the March on Washington, entrenching it in the Democratic Party and moving that party leftward.
As portrayed by D'Emilio, the final third of Rustin's life was a busy but anticlimactic denouement that largely accounts for the decline of his reputation among many on the left. It was a period marked by fealty to the Democratic Party, vocal hostility to the Black Power movement, quietude regarding the Vietnam War and fervent support for Israel. After having spent most of his career deep in the political wilderness, Rustin now found himself welcome at the LBJ White House and celebrated by leading institutions of higher education, including Yale and Harvard, which bestowed honorary degrees upon him.
Before the late 1970s, Rustin spent little if any energy advancing the cause of equal treatment for lesbians and gays. During the final decade of his life, however, he began to speak out in support of the gay liberation movement. One influence prompting this change, suggests D'Emilio, was Walter Naegle, a younger man with whom Rustin fell in love (and legally adopted for purposes of estate planning). Naegle convinced Rustin to support vocally such measures as a sexual-orientation antidiscrimination ordinance in New York City. He also helped to persuade Rustin to address organizations like Black and White Men Together. Speaking to this group in 1986, Rustin remarked that "the barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group which is most mistreated," and that now "the new 'niggers' are gays." D'Emilio notes, however, that even with Rustin's forays into gay politics, he was never quite of it. The year before Rustin died in 1987, gay activist Joseph Beam invited Rustin to contribute to an anthology of writings by black gay men. "After much thought," Rustin responded, "I have decided that I must decline.... I did not 'come out of the closet' voluntarily--circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. The credit for that belongs to others.... While I support full equality, under law, for homosexuals, I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter."
D'Emilio obviously believes that Rustin's sexual life is and should be a matter of public interest. Yet his exploration of that side of Rustin's existence is notably sterile. Readers learn from him little about either what Rustin found sexually attractive or what others found sexually attractive about Rustin. Furthermore, D'Emilio refrains from exploring the racial aspects of Rustin's sexual life, even as he describes the troubles his homosexuality caused him in a homophobic society. He writes that Rustin was particularly attracted to white men. But D'Emilio refrains from commenting upon the meaning of that apparent preference. Was it truly a racial preference? Or did the pattern merely reflect the demographics of the social circles in which Rustin traveled? If the pattern was truly racial, did it arise from an aesthetic-erotic hankering or did it signal something else, perhaps even a distaste for black male affection? Given D'Emilio's interest in the sexual character of Rustin's life, one might have expected a more searching examination of why it was that all of Rustin's serious, open romantic relationships involved white men. There is no disapproval of Rustin's sexual interracialism in this criticism of D'Emilio, only a wish that he had pushed even further to excavate Rustin's innermost perceptions.
D'Emilio's biography is explicitly an attempt to rehabilitate a figure who, in the author's opinion, has been ignored by the general public and maligned by the left as an apostate who surrendered his radicalism for access to political influence that proved to be illusory. To a large extent D'Emilio makes a persuasive case for Rustin's importance. A solid understanding of the fascinating intersection of pacifist, socialist and antiracist social movements does require more than a passing knowledge of Bayard Rustin.
On occasion, however, D'Emilio excessively puffs his subject's significance. According to D'Emilio, Rustin "insinuated nonviolence into the heart of the black freedom struggle." This suggests that before Rustin there existed substantial support for resorting to violence, which is simply not so. The influence of Rustin's pacifist gospel on blacks was Lilliputian in comparison to what has decisively driven black protest into nonviolent means of expression--a prudent and pervasive recognition that blacks are greatly outnumbered by a population with access to police and military forces that are all too willing to suppress blacks ruthlessly. Similarly overstated is D'Emilio's suggestion that Rustin has been peculiarly victimized by omission or amnesia. Compared with Fannie Lou Hamer, Modjeska Simkins, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, James Hinton, Victor Rabinowitz and other unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, Rustin has actually received considerable acknowledgment. As noted at the outset, he has now been lionized in three biographies.
The result of D'Emilio's attempt to defend Rustin against charges of apostasy also yields mixed results. He convincingly rebuts the most tendentious of these charges--the claims that Rustin became nothing more than an exotic establishment "house nigger," a neoconservative, a shill plain and simple for Big Labor and Israel. True, Rustin did invite condemnation from some quarters on the left by repudiating the sloganeering of Black Power; cussing out the likes of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton; taking the side of the mostly white and Jewish United Federation of Teachers union in its ugly and rancorous battle with blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York City; and continuing to promote integration and nonviolent coalition politics. Rustin was especially contemptuous of cultural black nationalism. "Wearing my hair Afro style, calling myself an Afro-American, and eating all the chitterlings I can find," he quipped, "are not going to affect Congress."