• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Great Adventurer


Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the illegitimate son of Florence Rustin, and was reared by her parents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. His grandmother, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who had been educated in Quaker schools and was heavily influenced by Quaker ideas, had a deep effect on Rustin as a child. Julia Rustin believed strongly in the black freedom struggle and the dignity of her race. She was one of the first members of the NAACP, which had been started in 1909. So Rustin grew up with a maternal figure who had a highly developed social conscience and a keen sense of racial pride.

What also affected Rustin’s youth was the fact that he lived in a highly integrated neighborhood, attended integrated schools, and associated for nearly all his young life with whites. He was athletic—a star at track and football—but he was also artistic. He was a good singer and liked to declaim poetry. His cultural interests later made it easy for him to join the all-white world of leftist, nonviolent protest politics, which he was drawn to not simply by exposure and training but also by temperament.

Rustin discovered as a teenager that he was homosexual. His family was tolerant of it and Rustin never hid it. His strong integrationist impulse was reflected in his sex life. Since he was promiscuous he had sex with many different types of men, but his most stable and lasting relationships were with whites.

After a failed stint at Wilberforce University—an African Methodist Episcopal school in Ohio—where he was dismissed either for a disagreement over his required ROTC duties or because he led a student strike to improve the quality of the food, he wound up back in West Chester at Cheney State College, a black school founded by Quakers. It was during this time that Rustin formally became a Quaker and became attracted to the growing peace education movement of the 1930s, what D’Emilio describes as “a relatively new experiment among the activist wing of the Quakers….” He was dismissed from Cheney State for what seems to have been some sort of sexual indiscretion, a problem that was to hound Rustin later in life.

He left Pennsylvania for Harlem in 1937, where he worked briefly for the WPA. During the Thirties he was frequently seen in Greenwich Village among musicians and artists, most of them leftists. In the folk-singing world, he met Josh White and became a member of the singing group the Carolinians, which performed at the popular Café Society Downtown. Of course, he found it much easier to be homosexual in New York, particularly in the Village, a center of bohemian gay life among both blacks and whites. Rustin found New York itself liberating. Its cosmopolitanism suited his disposition, and the artistic and political richness of black life there thrilled him.

Political restlessness led Rustin to join the Young Communist League, from which he resigned in 1941 at the same time as other blacks like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison discontinued their Communist-front affiliations because of the Party’s insistence that all agitation on the race question must cease as a result of the June 22, 1941, German invasion of the Soviet Union, which required that all political activist energies be directed toward the defeat of fascism.

A. Philip Randolph had threatened a march on Washington by blacks in 1941, before the United States entered the war, to force President Roosevelt to hire more blacks in the defense industry. The threat, whose adherents grew from 10,000 to 100,000 as the idea of a march reached blacks throughout the country, resulted in Executive Order 8802, which outlawed segregated hiring practices and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Neither had much force behind it but both were important concessions at the time, and became a base from which a new era of political negotiations between blacks and the federal government was created. Randolph made the idea of a march the foundation for a permanent organization, the March on Washington Movement, after 1941. The idea of creating so high a level of black mobilization was an inspiration to Rustin.

Rustin’s work for Randolph was encouraged and supported by A.J. Muste, the head of the pacifist group the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which Rustin had joined in 1941. The FOR was seeking a close involvement with black activism, and it was Rustin who could unite the two. Rustin was to have a long association with both Muste and Randolph, and it might be said that in 1942, as a result of his association with both men, Rustin’s career as a reformer and an activist really took shape.

What also brought aspects of the black freedom struggle together with the pacifist movement in the 1940s was the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi, the world’s foremost proponent of nonviolent protest.2 The fact that Gandhi was fighting against a powerful white nation and that he referred to himself as a black man had much to do with the admiration he generated among many black Americans. Howard Thurman, the dean of the chapel at Howard University, a prolific writer on spiritual matters and an admirer of Gandhi, was, along with Rustin, a largely unacknowledged influence on Martin Luther King. Whatever little King knew about nonviolence before meeting Rustin he had learned imperfectly and indirectly from Thurman and imperfectly and directly from Benjamin Mays, one of his mentors at Morehouse College, who had met Gandhi in 1936.

Rustin had learned about Gandhi’s methods and the philosophy of satyagraha when he joined the FOR. In 1942 he was urging black students to use Gandhian tactics:

In all those places where we have a voice, it is our high responsibility to indicate that the Negro can attain progress only if he uses, in his struggle, nonviolent direct action—a technique consistent with the ends he desires.

When that year the Congress of Racial Equality was founded as a conceptual and organizational marriage between pacifism and civil rights, it called for Gandhian tactics to achieve racial change, and Rustin himself helped to train some of CORE’s earliest demonstrators. Six years later, in 1948, he was to spend seven weeks in India, perfecting his knowledge of Gandhi and the nonviolent direct action movement.

Rustin had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, and in 1944 he chose to go to prison although, as a Quaker, he did not have to go: there were provisions in the Selective Service Act that offered alternative service to those who for legitimate religious reasons would not fight in a war. But Rustin chose prison, probably to enact his pacifist beliefs as well as to organ-ize the prisoners, as many other imprisoned conscientious objectors were doing. (Rustin was far from being the only black man who went to prison for refusing to serve. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the separatist Nation of Islam, for example, also went to prison for refusing the draft.3 )

Rustin succeeded in organizing a few protests while in prison in Ashland, Kentucky, attempting to integrate the prison nonviolently, and he was once badly beaten by a racist white prisoner. In the end, though, his efforts were deeply undermined when he was observed performing oral sex on an inmate “behind a curtain on the stage of the prison auditorium.” There were other such incidents, as well as testimony to his openly affectionate behavior toward other inmates. He denied the auditorium incident, and others. His denial served to discredit him in prison and disturbed the pacifists who supported him, including A.J. Muste himself. Muste came to visit Rustin in prison, but remained troubled by his refusal to admit the truth. The incident was also a heavy blow to Rustin’s efforts to desegregate the prison. Shortly afterward, he experienced what can only be called a nervous breakdown, becoming by turns recalcitrant and contrite, petulant and abject.

On June 11, 1946, after twenty-seven months in prison, Rustin was released and resumed his lecturing and organizing for Muste. While one war was over and another, the cold war, was beginning, civil rights reform was gathering momentum as a mass movement. In 1947, Rustin and a small group of his CORE and FOR colleagues decided to test the Supreme Court’s 1946 Morgan v. Virginia decision, which outlawed segregation in interstate transportation, by traveling by bus around the upper South as integrated pairs, with the whites among them sitting in the back of the bus and blacks sitting in the front. The Journey of Reconciliation ended with two arrests, including that of Rustin, who was convicted in North Carolina and served a month on a chain gang. These were, in effect, the first freedom rides.

On his release Rustin joined Randolph’s campaign in 1947 and 1948 to pressure the Truman administration to integrate the US armed forces. Randolph was threatening widespread draft resistance among blacks against the new Conscription Bill, but abandoned the threat when Truman responded by issuing Executive Order 9981 in July 1948, which called for the desegregation of the military. Rustin thought that by abandoning the effort, Randolph had sold out, and there was a brief rift between them.

It must be said that D’Emilio’s account of the campaign to integrate the military is not as strong as it could have been. He neglects to say that the movement started before the end of World War II with the vigorous efforts of the black Civilian Aides William Hastie and Truman Gibson, who worked in the War Department. Nor does he mention Lester Granger, the head of the National Urban League, who shortly after the war had spearheaded the drive to integrate the services, and was hired by the Navy to study how it could best implement integration. It is clear from Michael R. Gardner’s Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks (2002), the best account of Truman’s strong advocacy of civil rights during his presidency, that Truman would have integrated the military anyway, whether or not Randolph in 1947 and 1948 had threatened mass draft resistance on the part of blacks.


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rustin traveled abroad to work with pacifist leaders in Europe, particularly to discuss and organize protests against nuclear weapons and the arms race. In 1952, he visited Ghana and Nigeria and met the leaders of their independence movements, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe. On this trip it occurred to Rustin that Gandhian tactics could be used successfully in the African independence movement, that Africa could be the true testing ground for nonviolent mass action and the struggle for independence. He believed that anticolonialism should replace the anti–nuclear weapons efforts which mostly preoccupied the international peace movement at the time. He thought that the independence struggle would be the way to attract more blacks into the peace movement. He pressed the divided FOR leadership hard for this approach in the fall of 1952 and was given a leave of absence to spend 1953 in West Africa.

But Rustin’s life began to unravel, and as it did, so did his African initiative. In January 1953 in Pasadena, he was discovered by the police performing fellatio with two men in the back seat of a car. It was not the first time Rustin had gotten in trouble for his homosexuality, nor was it the first time he had been arrested for illegal sex. But the Pasadena scandal dogged him for the rest of the decade and well into the 1960s. When it was convenient, political and personal enemies—from Strom Thurmond to Adam Clayton Powell, who wanted to undermine Martin Luther King, for whom Rustin had become an adviser, and discourage any civil rights demonstration in Washington—condemned him as a sexual pervert. The scandal brought to an end Rustin’s visibility in the civil rights movement, to which he had devoted so much of his life. From that time on, he was a background figure.

Among blacks, attitudes toward homosexuality were ambivalent. Strong Protestant Christian beliefs coupled with sexual conservatism made homosexuality to many disgusting and sinful. On the other hand, homosexuality was both visible and common in the black world of those days (not least in the black church) and seemed, in many ways and in some places, to be broadly tolerated (although I know of instances during my boyhood in the 1960s when effeminate or homosexual boys were treated brutally by boys in black street gangs). The immediate result of his Pasadena arrest was that Muste dismissed Rustin from his position at the FOR. The African project he had worked so hard for died when he was fired. (Rustin remained involved in African issues all his life and traveled to Africa often in subsequent years.) He joined the War Resisters League in 1953, which remained his link to the peace movement until 1965, when he left to form the Randolph Institute, which, Rustin hoped, would help white labor have better communication with blacks.

Nevertheless, Rustin did his greatest work after his Pasadena arrest. As an adviser to Martin Luther King during the Montgomery bus boycott, he taught King, whose knowledge of Gandhi was rudimentary, about nonviolent action, and advised him on the tactics of mass organizing. As he put it, “[King] did not have the ability to organize vampires to go to a bloodbath.”

Along with Stanley Levison, a successful lawyer and real estate developer who was active in the American Jewish Congress and had been a member of the American Communist Party, Rustin was among King’s key advisers throughout the late 1950s. He even helped King write his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. He and Levison were instrumental in encouraging King to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to capitalize on the energy generated by the Montgomery bus boycott. SCLC was formed in 1957, the same year that Rustin, along with Levison and Ella Baker, helped to organize the Washington Prayer Pilgrimage for the SCLC, a gathering that drew between 15,000 and 25,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial to sing, demand civil rights legislation, and try to inspire hope for change among blacks, a prelude to the 1963 March on Washington.

Rustin was never given an official position with the SCLC because the other ministers in the group felt uncomfortable with his homosexuality and because King was afraid that he might be romantically linked to Rustin through rumors, which, in fact, happened largely aided by Adam Clayton Powell, who did not want King, with Rustin’s help, to picket the 1960 Democratic Convention. Moreover, King was already sufficiently constrained by his relationship with Levison, a Communist agent, which was to cause him no end of distress from the Kennedy administration in the 1960s.

The 1963 March on Washington, organized by Rustin, proved to be King’s defining moment. It brought together the Big Six civil rights leaders—King of the SCLC, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, James Farmer of CORE, Whitney Young of the Urban League, A. Philip Randolph, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—and what was left of the old popular front coalition of labor, Jews, liberal Catholics, blacks, peace activists, intellectuals, and artists, along with several liberal philanthropic foundations. The march was paid for largely by a white philanthropist, Stephen Currier, and the Taconic Foundation.

The March on Washington was Rustin’s greatest achievement, and it earned him an extremely favorable reception in the press. But it was only a few years later, when the Black Power movement began sweeping through the nation’s black world and mainstream civil rights became institutionalized or memorialized, that Rustin’s influence declined. Nevertheless he continued to be politically active virtually until the day he died.

D’Emilio’s biography is an important book about an important man, well researched, with particularly perceptive insights into gay culture in America as well as providing a solid account of the history of the peace movement and the civil rights struggle between 1940 and 1965. I would not say it is the definitive biography of Rustin. Jervis Anderson’s Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen4 is still useful, particularly since Anderson had previously written a biography of Randolph and so knew Rustin from his association with black labor politics. This gives his biography a different perspective from D’Emilio’s perspective of Rustin as a black and gay civil rights activist.

It is tempting to see Rustin these days as something of a martyr, a term that may explain the title of his collected writings, Time on Two Crosses, which was taken from the title of an interview that Rustin gave near the end of his life, in which he talked about his homosexuality. Yet there is something about the phrase that rings false and does Rustin a disservice. Suggesting that Rustin was a martyr is to misunderstand the richness and complexity of his life, and of the experience of being black and homosexual. Seeing his life as one of a double victimization is patronizing. His life and work are expressive affirmations, not sacrificial symbols. Rustin himself never voiced a view of himself as either a martyr or a victim. Instead, there is something about Rustin that suggests a soldier of fortune in the army of social reform, flamboyant, theatrical, egotistical, and deeply sincere. He had been attracted to oppositional politics from his youth because he sensed, among many other things, something daring and courageous in it. Indeed, one might imagine him saying, to paraphrase a famous literary hero for children, “to organize in protest would be an awfully big adventure.” And so it was.

  1. 2

    Sudarshan Kapur’s Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi (Beacon, 1992) remains the most comprehensive account of how black Americans were influenced by Gandhi long before the emergence of Martin Luther King.

  2. 3

    Elijah Muhammad was also a Japanese sympathizer. He was charged with both draft evasion and sedition. The draft evasion was curious because, at the time (1943), Muhammad was about forty-five years old and had eight children. The sedition charge never stuck, but there was more Japanese sympathy among blacks than is commonly acknowledged. Japanese and Filipino agents spread a mild degree of dissension in urban black communities during World War II and some blacks, including W.E.B. Du Bois, sympathized with Japan because it was a “colored” nation. The fact that the Japanese brutalized other “colored” peoples like the Koreans, the Chinese, and the Filipinos seemed lost on them. Like Rustin, Muhammad was released from prison in 1946.

  3. 4

    HarperCollins, 1997.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print