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Great Adventurer


Bayard Rustin, the subject of John D’Emilio’s recent biography Lost Prophet, was a striking example of the social reformer. He was black, Quaker, homosexual, pacifist, a labor organizer, a tactician, and a dandy—an odd combination of social, biological, and psychological traits and inclinations that perhaps could only have led to a career as a political activist that allowed him to fulfill both his sense of morality and his flair for self-dramatics. What else was Rustin fit to do that might have satisfied him at the time he reached adulthood in the 1930s except engage in the monumental project of changing the United States for the better?

Rustin was no saint in many ways. Indeed, his sexual promiscuity got him into enormous trouble for a good portion of his adult life. (The fact that he was openly gay merely aggravated the sin in the minds of many of the people around him at the time.) Yet his willingness to take physical risks, to sacrifice his body in nonviolent protest, to go to prison if need be, gave him an almost holy air of commitment and sincerity. He was also a powerful orator. As D’Emilio’s book makes clear, Rustin was a charismatic figure: “In ways both innocent and invidious, Rustin’s associates exoticized him. But,” he adds, “they did it with his cooperation and encouragement.” Oddly, although he was an arresting person, he was largely overshadowed throughout his career by the men he worked for: the pacifist A.J. Muste, the black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He was never truly a leader himself but the sort of invaluable aide de camp or majordomo that enabled these leaders of social reform to lead.

Most people only occasionally approve of social reformers like William Lloyd Garrison and Carrie Nation, and don’t always respect their accomplishments or admire their tenacity. There are several reasons for this: first, most of us believe that our institutions are fundamentally fair, so we tend to think that reformers who tell us that there are some, even many, who are being exploited, abused, brutalized by them are bleeding hearts, busybodies, or, like the victims they speak for, maladjusted complainers.

Secondly, most of us suffer from inertia and dislike change because it feels uncomfortable. The fatalism of the “invisible hand” of human nature, capitalism, or God is actually comforting, suggesting as it does that the world is not chaos, even if it may be arbitrary. Moreover, social reformers tend to take ordinary people to task for failing to act. Most people like to think well of themselves, and don’t much want to be preached to about their shortcomings. All major social movements in America—abolitionism, temperance, women’s suffrage, racial integration—started as dissenting alternatives to mainstream opinion. Some, despite their success, were never accepted by the majority.

Some social reform movements in America, particularly abolitionism and the civil rights movement, made use of Christianity, because Christianity itself in history has functioned, in many instances, as a social reform movement. It has been a theology of both tolerance and intolerance, of inclusiveness and exclusivity. The civil rights movement, especially under Martin Luther King, sought to liberate the oppressor from sin and the oppressed from oppression. These Christian assumptions were linked to the basic American belief that each person must realize his or her potential, that each person is entitled to have a potential. When Rustin taught King about Gandhi, he gave the young minister a way not only to dramatize the linkage of Christian and American beliefs that propelled his movement but to make it a vast, heroic effort.

The civil rights movement, like most American reform movements, justifies its cause by mouthing the most famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Abolitionism, women’s rights, gay rights, the civil rights movement, the Progressivism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which gave us everything from Prohibition and the California Recall to a graduated income tax, the Mann Act, which was meant to curb prostitution, and the NAACP—all grounded themselves in the idea that they were not truly radical or revolutionary movements but that their radicalism was in the tradition of American democratic ideology, that they were simply trying to get the United States to live up to its creed and become a true democracy. Almost all other American reform movements have made similar patriotic claims.

But some reformers had to be careful about how much patriotism they espoused. Rustin seemed to those in leftist circles to have grown more conservative as he grew older, because he was convinced that reform was rooted not just in protest but in mainstream politics, and that no true reform movement would ever realize its goals if it remained outside government. Rustin grew weary of being marginalized by having to renounce the acquisition of power as a legitimate way to accomplish ends. In later life he seemed to think that the pacifist and leftist reformer’s dream of a world detached from power was quixotic, even a form of privilege or escape. This is why he praised Eldridge Cleaver after the former Black Panther returned to the United States in 1976 and wrote Soul on Fire, in which he rejected many of the views he had expressed in Soul on Ice, praised American democracy, and condemned the leftist totalitarian governments that had harbored him during his fugitive years. While the left, black and white, condemned Cleaver as a sellout, Rustin wrote:

Cleaver’s message is to remind us just how revolutionary the democratic idea really is. His emphasis on the importance of democracy may seem commonplace, but his views are powerful because they are the result of both theory and experience. His passionately felt beliefs have caused him to perceive the importance of turning the clichés of democracy back into ideals.

Rustin went on to compare Cleaver’s thinking to that of George Orwell: “Orwell criticized the British left for denigrating nationalism as necessarily reactionary and provincial. It was the patriotism of the British working class, he argued, that [had] saved Britain from defeat at the hands of Hitler.”

In effect, Rustin was defending himself through Cleaver after being attacked by many of the same radicals who were attacking Cleaver. Rustin’s response was that the left was actually elitist, that it denigrated nationalism and patriotism as the bunk of the masses. When his pacifist friends accused him of being too cozy with the Johnson administration he replied, “You guys can’t deliver a single pint of milk to the kids in Harlem. Lyndon Johnson can.” But what is also clear in his defense of Cleaver is that Rustin saw Cleaver’s change as a sign of growth, much, perhaps, like his own perceived change: “In the sixties Cleaver became an almost mythical figure for thousands of young blacks and whites, but today he is an authentic hero.”1

Rustin’s fear of becoming a tool of the left and of black militancy is also the reason that he condemned all forms of black separatism, even including Black Studies programs:

It is hoped, first, that Black Studies will serve the ideological function of creating a mythologized history and a system of assertive ideas that will facilitate the political mobilization of the black community. It is also hoped that Black Studies will serve the political function of developing and educating a cadre of activists who conceive of their present training as a preparation for organizational work in the black community. One may feel—as I do—that there should be more young Negroes engaging in activities to uplift their brethren, but to the extent that Black Studies is used as a vehicle for political indoctrination, it ceases to be a scholastic program.

That Rustin saw a clear distinction between activist politics and the academy, that he did not trust the rhetoric of resistance, did not make him cautious or an Uncle Tom, except to those who disliked his views. Rather it made him think that radical activists were betraying the very idea of democratic reform and distorting the nature and necessity of its evolution from resistance to political bargaining. For Rustin did not mind if reform became a form of accommodation. It was a natural price to be paid for having a seat at the table of power. This implied patriotism more than most of his radical friends could stand.


Bayard Rustin, a handsome, fastidious, somewhat affected man, spent his life in the cause of social reform, particularly pacifism and the civil rights movement. He was an important, though shadowy, figure in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 1950s. He was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. His dedication to civil rights was almost inescapable, since most of his adult life was spent during a time of great social ferment in America, beginning in World War II, when black Americans were redefining themselves and their nation. But his pacifism was unusual. Pacifism has rarely been in the political interest of blacks, since participating in war was a useful and necessary way for them to push for full citizenship, because it proved their loyalty.

Interestingly, Rustin was a product of both liberalism and the leftist challenge to liberalism. As John D’Emilio points out, Rustin

pressed against [liberalism’s] most glaring failure, its willingness to tolerate white supremacy and racial apartheid for so long. He challenged its confidence that military force, an arms race, and a burgeoning defense establishment would ever succeed in permanently bringing peace or justice to the world. In a sense, liberalism enabled Rus- tin’s career and outlook.

In part, Rustin’s success was greatly related to the very tolerance that was built into what he opposed. He gambled that liberalism, when challenged, would not react with oppression but with the effort to become more of what its ideals said it was: open to the energy of reasonable change and to more fundamental equality. By the end of his life, when he became a vigorous supporter of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (so much so that he refrained from criticizing the Vietnam War) and of Israel, he was dismissed in radical circles as the bourgeois reformer he was and he became anathema to black leftist activists who believed in a “colored” third world with Israel as its enemy. He had been subsumed by the very liberalism that he opposed as insufficient and cowardly in the 1930s and 1940s.

The fact that Rustin was black and homosexual makes him an exciting, even heroic, figure for those who see him as intersecting two “oppositional” cultures. Yet when he died in 1987, a lion in winter at seventy-five, he had the ear of the powerful, including Donald Rumsfeld and Cyrus Vance. George Meany provided support for the A. Philip Randolph Institute which Rustin had created in the late 1960s to promote collaboration between the American labor movement and blacks. Far from being an isolated figure, D’Emilio tells us, in his later years Rustin was frequently invited to international conferences, where he “rubbed shoulders” with the heads of big corporations and high officials in foreign governments.

  1. 1

    See “Eldridge Cleaver and the Democratic Ideal,” included in Time on Two Crosses.

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