Photo courtesy of the Bayard Rustin Estate
It’s a wonder that Bayard Rustin is not better remembered. The architect of arguably the greatest civil rights event of the 20th century, the 1963 march on Washington, Rustin is credited with cementing Gandhi’s nonviolence beliefs in the African-American struggle for equality. His near singular skill for planning protests like the 1964 New York City school boycott, where half a million students stayed home to protest segregation and unfair hiring practices, brought the high-profile (and highly organized) fight against institutionalized racism north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Add to this his early work in the anti-war movement, strong ties to progressive politics and his decades-long devotion to labor, and it seems odd that Bayard Rustin’s name doesn’t grace more urban schools and parks.
There are reasons. Rustin never headed a major civil rights organization, and he found himself at odds with generations of leaders, often because he saw through rivalries and told people what they didn’t want to hear. But there’s another reason for his relative obscurity. In Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, John D’Emilio addresses the elephant in the room that few scholars have touched on — Rustin was gay, and his unapologetic stance on his sexuality long before it was advisable to do so stymied his career and his legacy. D’Emilio’s book certainly has its faults, not the least of which is skipping over Rustin’s own shortcomings or explaining away some of his mistakes because of the anti-gay prejudices of the time, but Lost Prophet gives you a backstage pass to the dramas behind one of the geniuses of the civil rights movement. And it’s aptly timed — this week marks the 40th anniversary of the 1963 march.
Greatly influenced by his grandmother’s Quaker upbringing and their relatively tolerant Westchester, Pennsylvania, community, Rustin committed himself to nonviolence at an early age. His grandmother recognized not only his potential but also his attraction to men. “People who do not have as much to lose as you can be very careless,” she warned. A flirtation with communism ended after the movement dropped its fight for racial equality for the fight against fascism, but for decades Rustin’s detractors would paint him Red. Then, after a 1953 speech, Rustin was arrested for having sex with two white men in a car, which almost destroyed his activist career.
Despite his sex-offender label, Rustin went to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 to work with a young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., who was organizing a bus boycott. Northern activists wanted a good organizer, an expert in Gandhian nonviolence techniques and, most importantly, a black man to help King, who had a passing knowledge of Gandhi but was not well-versed in the movement. D’Emilio graphically portrays Rustin walking into King’s house and seeing guns all over, a logical sight considering the attempts on King’s life. Within weeks Rustin convinced King he would be safe without the guns, and could instill in his followers a nonviolent approach that would be less threatening to sympathetic whites and make for a more effective movement.
Rustin soon became a King confidant and ghostwriter, but he fought on the front line as well. He argued for the creation of a Southern civil rights organization, which eventually became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then, in 1960, as the SCLC was planning mass protests in conjunction with the presidential conventions, the NAACP and famed Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, looking to strengthen their places in the civil rights movement, told King that unless Rustin was removed from a position of power, they would accuse King and Rustin of having an affair. A scared King disappointed the shocked Rustin, and the master organizer stepped down.
A few years of exile in the international peace movement kept Rustin out of the thick of things, but his organizational and fund-raising skills still tugged at him. He talked up the idea of a mass political protest in the nation’s capital, and within months the different factions of the movement came together for the march on Washington. Over the NAACP’s objections Rustin was put in charge of logistics, planning everything from how buses would bring in demonstrators to how many first-aid stations would be needed, all while not drawing too much attention to himself.
Thanks to the FBI, and particularly the century’s most infamous closet case, J. Edgar Hoover, Rustin’s organizing made him a target. On the eve of the march, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond had Rustin’s sex arrest put in the Congressional Record, making the organizer the most famous gay man in America. Despite the attack, his fellow march organizers stood by Rustin, who served as the march’s unofficial master of ceremonies, and carefully scheduled King’s now seminal “I have a dream” speech last. The ex-communist and convicted sex pervert had pulled off what he later described as “one of the great days in American history.”
Enamored of Lyndon Johnson and his commitment to civil rights, Rustin saw an opportunity to finally get civil rights legislation that would undo the worst excesses of Reconstruction. Rustin paid a price for supporting the new president — his pacifist friends were appalled when he sat silent on Vietnam, and the man who was jailed in World War II for not fighting the fascists soon was jeered for being a warmongering apologist. His nonviolence stance also got Rustin guff from the growing Black Power movement, which saw his strategies as out of date in an increasingly violent society. He alienated himself even further through the rest of the 1960s and ’70s when he stood up to many African-American leaders who took an anti-Zionist stance to support the Palestinian movement, going so far as to set up a pro-Israel committee for African-Americans. Still, Rustin soon moved into the elder-statesman role, working with different international groups and even dipping into the struggle of gay liberation in New York City when he chided black City Council members into voting for a sexual-orientation non-discrimination bill.
Despite the occasional ramble, D’Emilio gives Rustin his due, pointing out that the gay man behind the curtain who set up and pulled the strings rose to the pinnacle of his chosen movement while still being held back by limitations from within the movement itself. But if anyone knew what he was up against, it was Rustin. He often quoted an old friend’s observation as a personal mantra: “The struggle must be continued, because freedom is never a final act.”
LOST PROPHET: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BAYARD RUSTIN | By John D’Emilio | Free Press | 576 pages | $35 hardcover