Bayard Rustin is one of the most important figures in the history of the American civil rights movement. Before Martin Luther King, before Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin was working to bring the cause to the forefront of America's consciousness. A teacher to King, an international apostle of peace, and the organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington, he brought Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence to America and helped launch the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Rustin has been largely erased by history, in part because he was an African American homosexual. Acclaimed historian John D'Emilio tells the full and remarkable story of Rustin's intertwined lives: his pioneering and public person and his oblique and stigmatized private self.
It was in the tumultuous 1930s that Bayard Rustin came of age, getting his first lessons in politics through the Communist Party and the unrest of the Great Depression. A Quaker and a radical pacifist, he went to prison for refusing to serve in World War II, only to suffer a sexual scandal. His mentor, the great pacifist A. J. Muste, wrote to him, "You were capable of making the 'mistake' of thinking that you could be the leader in a revolution...at the same time that you were a weakling in an extreme degree and engaged in practices for which there was no justification."
Freed from prison after the war, Rustin threw himself into the early campaigns of the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements until an arrest for sodomy nearly destroyed his career. Many close colleagues and friends abandoned him. For years after, Rustin assumed a less public role even though his influence was everywhere. Rustin mentored a young and inexperienced Martin Luther King in the use of nonviolence. He planned strategy for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference until Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to spread a rumor that King and Rustin were lovers. Not until Rustin's crowning achievement as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington would he finally emerge from the shadows that homophobia cast over his career. Rustin remained until his death in 1987 committed to the causes of world peace, racial equality, and economic justice.
Based on more than a decade of archival research and interviews with dozens of surviving friends and colleagues of Rustin's, Lost Prophet is a triumph. Rustin emerges as a hero of the black freedom struggle and a singularly important figure in the lost gay history of the mid-twentieth century. John D'Emilio's compelling narrative rescues a forgotten figure and brings alive a time of great hope and great tragedy in the not-so-distant past.
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D'Emilio takes an unflinching look at the complicated life of the man who made it happen. That Rustin (1912 1987), a black civil rights activist, is not a household name has less to do with his accomplishments than that he was openly gay in an era that criminalized homosexuality, according to the author. D'Emilio (Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940 1970) believes the lack of attention paid to Rustin in 1960s history books is tragic, and he examines, in a refreshingly unsympathetic fashion, the reasons behind the snub, most notably Rustin's 1953 arrest for lewd vagrancy in Pasadena, Calif. Drawing on interviews with Rustin's colleagues, friends and lovers, D'Emilio explores all facets of the activist's life, from his Quaker upbringing and early imprisonment for draft dodging to his close but tenuous relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. "Rustin came to King... with a history that threatened as much as it promised" is how D'Emilio describes their first encounter. The book's dry chronological accounts are alleviated by personal anecdotes and D'Emilio's own heartfelt descriptions, resulting in a thorough, if at times heavy and unfocused, portrait. Rather than a generalist's account, the book seems oriented toward closing the book on lingering objections to Rustin as a major figure fit for mainstream textbooks. Historians will hopefully take note; meanwhile, a recent PBS documentary feels much more immediate on Rustin's achievements, relationships and way of being in the world. FYI: A wonderful assemblage of polemical reportage, position papers and episodic memoirs,Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, will also be available this fall, edited by UCLA Law and African American Studies professor Devon Carbado and Donald Weise, who co-edited Black Like Us. (Cleis, paper 400p ; Sept.)