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Great Adventurer

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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. 1

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 4

    HarperCollins, 1997.

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