From Protest to Patronage
Bayard Rustin forged a remarkable career as a social activist. Briefly a member of the Young Communist League, he repudiated communism but remained a socialist throughout his life. A pacifist, he was imprisoned for refusing to comply with the draft during World War II. A champion of racial justice, he fought Jim Crow with sit-ins and other actions that anticipated the tactics of the Civil Rights Revolution. Rustin helped found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He advised Martin Luther King Jr., organized the 1963 March on Washington and wrote several essays that continue to repay close study. Throughout these pursuits, Rustin expressed a gay sexuality for which he was stigmatized as a sexual criminal, a smear that crippled his ability to lead the movements to which he passionately contributed ideas and inspiration.
Rustin was for many years a forgotten man. His obscurity stemmed not only from amnesia but also from conscious suppression, largely on the part of left-liberals and black nationalists who objected to what they saw as a complacent, even retrograde turn in his later years. Recently, however, a number of admirers have raised awareness of Rustin's life and revealed with increasing detail its pains and joys, failings and triumphs. Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer produced a PBS documentary (Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin) earlier this year, and an excellent anthology of Rustin's articles and speeches, Time on Two Crosses, is now available thanks to Devon Carbado and Donald Weise. The late Jervis Anderson published a biography in 1997 (Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen), as did Daniel Levine in 1999 (Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement). The most extensive biography to date is John D'Emilio's newly published Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. A historian of sexuality, particularly the gay liberation movement, D'Emilio focuses more intently than any previous biographer on Rustin's sexual entanglements and crises, and the effects of homophobia on his career. In so doing, he accentuates the gayness of his black hero, moving homophobia to center stage in the retelling of Rustin's dramatic story.
Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His biological father never acknowledged him. His biological mother was an unmarried, neglectful teenager. In his boyhood, Rustin was led to believe that she was his older sister. He was raised by his maternal grandparents--generous, public-spirited, hard-working people who enabled their grandson to graduate from high school and attend Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), two of the country's oldest predominantly black institutions of higher education. Rustin excelled in high school and showed potential for leadership in college. Yet he failed to graduate from either of the colleges he attended, for reasons that remain murky. D'Emilio maintains that Rustin was probably pressured into leaving Cheney State after being caught having sexual relations with a white man near campus.
In 1937 Rustin moved to New York City, which served as his base of operations for the remainder of his life. His energy, curiosity, physical attractiveness and seemingly boundless charm propelled him in various directions. He taught English to immigrants, performed in a musical starring Paul Robeson, joined a folk-singing group, Josh White and the Carolinians, enjoyed the furtive pleasures of gay life in Manhattan and developed an attachment to left politics. He joined the Communist Party, attracted in part by its militant antiracism. He broke with it, however, in the aftermath of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, when the party insisted that its members suspend protests against American racism for the sake of the wartime alliance against Hitler.
Rustin rejected this change in policy and instead pursued two aims that Communists disdained. First, he created a significant presence for himself in A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement (MOWM), which, by threatening to bring masses of blacks to the nation's capital to protest their racist mistreatment, successfully pressured President Franklin Roosevelt into issuing an executive order that prohibited racial discrimination in military plants. Second, Rustin became a follower of the radical pacifist A.J. Muste, joining Muste's Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and impressed upon his new, predominantly white comrades the need to combat racism. It was in the course of these efforts that he helped to found CORE. At this stage in his career, however, Rustin gave priority to pacifism as a calling, preaching an absolutist version of that faith that rejected warmaking even against Nazis. Refusing ostentatiously to pay any heed to the draft law, Rustin attracted the ire of federal authorities, who convinced a judge to sentence him to a three-year prison term.
After his release, Rustin continued to preach pacifism and traveled abroad to England, Europe and India to join other apostles of nonviolent reform to condemn the cold war, nuclear proliferation and colonialism. Just as he was achieving a new prominence, however, Rustin hurt himself terribly in a reckless act whose consequences haunted him for the rest of his life. In January 1953, he spoke about international pacifism at an event in Pasadena, California. Afterward, while wandering around early in the morning, Rustin got inside a car containing two white men. One thing led to another and before long Rustin was in the back seat performing oral sex when two police officers approached the car. Rustin and the two men were arrested on charges of lewd vagrancy and sentenced to sixty days in jail. This was not the first time that Rustin had been punished on account of his homosexuality. He had been punished for sexual "deviancy" during his imprisonment in World War II. After that episode he had assured his mentor, Muste, that he would somehow suppress his homosexual yearnings. After the second, Muste impatiently accepted Rustin's resignation from the FOR. "The Pasadena arrest," D'Emilio writes, "proved to be a pivotal event in Rustin's life." Not only did it brand him as a sex offender and cast him adrift from a cause and organization to which he had devoted himself; worse, it trailed him, threatening constantly to erupt anew as a source of embarrassment.
Alongside Rustin's efforts on behalf of pacifism were his bold initiatives in support of the black struggle for freedom and equality. In 1947 he organized a trip by bus that took an interracial group of volunteers from the North to the South. Under federal law, states were prohibited from imposing segregation in interstate travel. Many localities, however, did so anyway in accordance with Jim Crow etiquette. To dramatize the racist intransigence of local officials, Rustin and his comrades disobeyed racial custom and invited arrest. Whites seated themselves in sections of buses customarily reserved for blacks, and blacks seated themselves in sections customarily reserved for whites.