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.
Eight years later, Rustin played an important, though largely hidden, role in another challenge to Jim Crow transportation–the Montgomery bus boycott, triggered by Rosa Parks’s refusal to obey a bus driver who demanded that she give up her seat to a white man. When police arrested Parks for refusing to move, black Montgomery boycotted the buses under the leadership of a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin quickly appreciated the boycott’s significance and King’s potential. He traveled to Montgomery to meet King, and soon became one of his key speechwriters and advisers, urging King to capitalize on the boycott’s momentum by creating a new organization dedicated to advancing the cause of human rights in the South through mass activism. Rustin drafted the founding documents of what became the SCLC, and would have liked to administer the SCLC or otherwise serve King on an ongoing, open basis. But that possibility was precluded by Rustin’s homosexuality, or, more precisely, objections to his homosexuality and fears of scandal related to the Pasadena arrest.
Anxious to avoid troublesome publicity, Rustin hid his own influence. But for some of his sponsors, Rustin’s self-abnegation was insufficient; they insisted that he distance himself from King out of fear that sensationalist reporting on Rustin’s Communist past and homosexual proclivities might harm the fledgling Southern movement. Some of the movement’s ostensible friends, moreover, were not above raising Rustin’s past to settle old scores, or simply to protect their turf. In 1960 Rustin assisted King and Randolph in organizing a “March on the Convention Movement for Freedom Now,” a protest at the Republican and Democratic parties’ presidential nominating conventions whose aim was to pressure both parties into giving more priority to racial-justice initiatives. Insulted by what he perceived as their failure to consult him first, Adam Clayton Powell–the chief minister of Harlem’s most influential church (the Abyssinian Baptist) and one of only four blacks in the House of Representatives–accused King of being in thrall to socialist interests by virtue of his association with Rustin. When that failed to provoke a reaction, Powell upped the ante, threatening to charge that King and Rustin were having a homosexual affair. In the face of that threat, and King’s unwillingness to confront Powell, Rustin publicly severed all his ties with SCLC–one of several developments that undercut the proposed demonstrations and rendered them largely ineffectual.
Powell’s sexual blackmail devastated Rustin and drove him to the outer edges of the civil rights movement for several years. In 1963, however, he re-emerged, phoenix-like, at the center of the single most famous demonstration of the era. His old mentor, A. Philip Randolph, proposed a march that would focus not only on civil rights wrongly denied to blacks but also on the distressing condition of neglected black workers and those subjected to joblessness. Randolph announced the plan for an “Emancipation March on Washington for Jobs,” whereupon Rustin began to translate the vision into reality. He lined up the support of the major civil rights organizations, many unions, an ecumenical roster of prominent religious leaders and scores of celebrities (including Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr., Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier and, yes, Charlton Heston). Rustin methodically addressed nitty-gritty details involving transportation, policing, toilets, housing, food, medical care, trash disposal, entertainment, etc. He calmed the jittery nerves of supporters who feared failure, overcame the objections of President Kennedy, who feared disorder, and mollified egotistical civil rights leaders who suspected that rivals would reap greater benefits than themselves. Bringing to bear skills he had honed for decades, Rustin set the stage for a massive display of support for the civil rights movement as some 250,000 people converged on Washington on a workday–Wednesday, August 28, 1963.
That Rustin would retain his position as the march’s organizer-in-chief was by no means assured. First, his old nemesis, NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, tried to oust him from his own demonstration. “This march is of such importance,” Wilkins argued, “that we must not put a person [with] his liabilities as the head.” Randolph and the other top leaders acceded formally to Wilkins’s demand, but then rejected it in substance. Randolph assumed the role of director but immediately named Rustin as his deputy–an arrangement little different from the one about which Wilkins had initially complained. Then, a few weeks before the march, Strom Thurmond, the archsegregationist senator from South Carolina, attempted to discredit the civil rights movement by attacking Rustin. Armed with information obtained with the assistance of the infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Thurmond inserted into the Congressional Record accounts of Rustin’s Pasadena arrest, including a police booking slip detailing the incident. According to D’Emilio, Thurmond “named Rustin a sexual pervert…and newspapers across the country gave the story play. Not of his own choosing, Rustin [became] perhaps the most visible homosexual in America at a time when few gay men or lesbians aspired to any public attention.”
Thurmond’s smear, however, had little discernible negative effect; indeed, it strengthened the solidarity and resolve of the march’s leaders. Despite his previous objections, Wilkins rallied to Rustin’s defense, as did Randolph. “I speak for the combined Negro leadership,” Randolph declared, “in voicing my complete confidence in Bayard Rustin’s character.”
Spirits were high on August 28. Crowds were orderly, glitches inconsequential. The weather was beautiful. And to top it all off, King delivered his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin did not exaggerate when he described the day of the march as “one of the great days in American history.” It was also his finest hour, a moment in which the potentialities of his subtle skills were on full display. For once, Rustin received public recognition for his behind-the-scenes influence. Life magazine featured him on its cover, alongside Randolph.
The March on Washington constituted the apogee of Rustin’s career. It marked not only the high point of the classical phase of black civil rights protest; it also marked the return of political economy to the array of central concerns voiced by mainstream black leaders. In Rustin’s blueprint for the march, he noted that the century since the Emancipation Proclamation had “witnessed no fundamental government action to terminate the economic subordination of the American Negro.” Rustin highlighted this concern with long-neglected economic matters by naming the protest the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
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.”
D’Emilio shows, however, that even as Rustin was taking what some derided as his conservative turn, he articulated demands for full employment, universal healthcare, the abolition of poverty, investment in public services and protections against invidious discriminations that were far more ambitious than anything envisioned by even the most visionary of the liberal champions of LBJ’s Great Society proposals. While debating Stokely Carmichael, Rustin reaffirmed that “basic in the demands of the Negro people today is a fundamental challenge to this society. We are asking first of all for what this society does not want to hear: a redistribution of wealth…. This society must dig deep and be prepared to make revolutionary change in its economic and social life.” It is arguable that the radical tenor of Rustin’s rhetoric in the late 1960s was merely a vestige of his former persona that served to obscure his accommodation with cold war liberalism. In the late phase of his career, after all, Rustin sometimes seemed to spend as much (if not more) energy condemning dissidents on the left as he did condemning the establishment. Given the widespread image of Rustin’s transformation–one that often exaggerates his drift toward the center–D’Emilio performs a real service by underlining the degree to which his hero, at least rhetorically, preserved his commitment to radical egalitarianism.
With respect to Rustin’s conduct regarding the Vietnam War, D’Emilio is witheringly critical. He notes that Rustin spoke out vigorously against the war before the rise of a broadly based antiwar movement. But as the war escalated and the antiwar movement grew, Rustin’s critical stance toward the Johnson Administration dramatically softened. He often seemed to become more exercised by perceived strategic gaffes on the part of antiwar activists than by LBJ’s egregious war policy. By 1968, Rustin had ceased to have any substantial presence in the antiwar movement. “Search the anti-war movement’s greatest moments,” D’Emilio mordantly observes, “and Rustin’s absence is glaring.” This absence, he argues, reflects poorly on Rustin and underlines a tragic irony. “Rustin had shaped his public career by steadfastly advancing Gandhian nonviolence and had worked in pacifist organizations for more than two decades.” Yet, “as a popular mass movement was building against American military action abroad, Rustin was choosing to avoid the issue. Having stood apart…as a radical pacifist, he was now standing apart from pacifism just when a cry for peace was reaching millions.”
D’Emilio attributes Rustin’s diffidence to a pragmatic decision. Grateful to LBJ for delivering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a down payment on the Great Society, Rustin was hopeful that more–much more–would be accomplished if LBJ (or his epigone, Hubert Humphrey) could somehow retain the White House. Although the war made him uncomfortable, Rustin muffled his objections for the purpose of supporting what he saw as the only political vehicle immediately capable of elevating the fortunes of the black masses–the liberal, albeit misguidedly hawkish, wing of the Democratic Party.
If all that entered into an assessment of Rustin was the wisdom of this calculation, a critic would be limited to censuring him, at worst, for being unwise. But one also has to wonder whether Rustin’s decision was substantially influenced by his own personal needs and ambitions. D’Emilio rejects insinuations that Rustin was a bought man, limited in what he could say by his dependence for funding, travel and security on interests that tended to be monied, hawkish, Jewish and fiercely attached to Big Labor. But evidence lurking in the margins of D’Emilio’s own account provides a substantial basis for believing that the insinuations are at least partly true. After bouncing around for many years from one penurious organization to the next as a freelance organizer, Rustin finally erected an institutional home for himself in the mid-1960s by founding and directing the A. Philip Randolph Institute (ARI). Named after Rustin’s towering mentor, the ARI was largely bankrolled by George Meany’s AFL-CIO. That sponsorship undoubtedly imposed certain boundaries on Rustin. Meany, after all, was an aggressive supporter of anti-Communist militarism, including LBJ’s war policy in Vietnam. Of course, it was possible that Rustin’s own belief structure kept him well within these boundaries without any need for outside constraint. But testimony quoted by D’Emilio from a number of Rustin’s friends indicates that he recognized and accepted the confines of his new institutional home with some degree of self-conscious resignation. “You get tired after a while,” he said to one friend, “and you have to come home to something comfortable and something you can count on.”
There are other ways as well in which D’Emilio is insufficiently probing. He applauds Rustin’s cosmopolitan disdain of nationalism, perhaps especially black nationalism. Yet, without comment, D’Emilio tells us that Rustin, the founder of the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, was unflaggingly supportive of Zionism. Since D’Emilio lauds Rustin’s general distrust of nationalism as a form of tribal superstition, he should at the very least explain Rustin’s very different attitude toward Jewish nationalism. Similarly, while he admiringly chronicles Rustin’s pacifism (except for his evasiveness on Vietnam), D’Emilio says little about Rustin’s outspoken insistence that the United States make Israel the indisputable military power in its region. D’Emilio cites Rustin’s concession that the nature of his support for Israel “created a tension” with his pacifist beliefs. Yet D’Emilio refrains from probing the dimensions of this “tension” or commenting on Rustin’s justification for it.
Clearly the justification was rooted in part in Rustin’s genuine sympathy for Jews–a sympathy nourished by grief in the aftermath of the Holocaust, revulsion for Arab dictatorships, and friendships with the likes of Albert Shanker, Irving Howe and Max Schachtman. Rustin’s expressions of sympathy also stemmed, however, from the realpolitik expressed in the aforementioned 1965 article, “From Protest to Politics.” Perceiving Jews as an essential partner in the grand coalition on which he pinned his hopes for a politically ascendant and ideologically left-liberal Democratic Party, Rustin took care to indulge the sensibilities of this influential constituency.
Bayard Rustin was an exceptionally intelligent, brave and eloquent social reformer who wrestled mightily with the dilemmas that continue to bedevil progressives today. Did his gamble with the Democratic Party pay off? One cannot know for sure, of course. But it seems that the party moved him considerably more than he moved it. Intent upon gaining access to power and its attendant benefits, Rustin perhaps sacrificed too much of the authority he had accumulated over the years through his patient commitment to decent idealism.