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.