A new biography of the civil rights leader who masterminded the march on Washington
The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
By John D’Emilio
Free Press. 568 pp. $ 35
Bayard Rustin is one of the most interesting and enigmatic figures in 20th-century American history yet, John D’Emilio argues in this comprehensive, nuanced and thoroughly admirable biography, “a man without a home in history.” He died only a decade and a half ago, but “his enormous contributions to American life — in the struggle for racial equality, a peaceful international order, and a democratic economic system — have been covered over, his name mostly forgotten, his contribution to a world worth living in largely obscured.”
There is no reason to believe that Rustin wanted it this way. He was incredibly smart, fiercely proud and (no one knew this better than he did) openly arrogant. He spoke — spoke, it must be added, with immense eloquence, passion and, when it was called for, wit — in public any time a forum was offered to him, he was arrested a couple of dozen times for civil disobedience and/or nonviolent resistance, and he had close personal and working relationships with many of the notable Americans of his day. Yet for most of his life he worked “on the sidelines, an observer as the struggle for racial justice built toward a crescendo.”
The explanation for this is easy to state, difficult to analyze in its full implications. At a time when homosexuality was still almost entirely in the closet, Rustin was a homosexual. Not just that, in his homosexuality he was “confident, assured and free of guilt.” Homosexuality “was an integral part of him,” in which he reveled and for which he offered no apologies. It is fair to say — Rustin admitted as much himself — that he was promiscuous. D’Emilio persuasively argues that he was so immersed in work and causes that he had “little room for constructing a gay-centered personal life” and “little time to build the social networks capable of relieving the aching loneliness that, in moments of vulnerability, he acknowledged.” It was, D’Emilio writes, “ironically Rustin’s devotion to the cause of revolutionary nonviolence that in some measure made him prone to engage in random pickups, casual cruising, and public sex.”
That is exactly what happened late one night in January 1953, at the end of a long day in which Rustin had given a speech in California on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a “Christian pacifist organization” for which he had worked a dozen years. He approached two young men in a car, offered them oral sex, and was performing it when county police officers approached the car and arrested him. At that moment, “Rustin’s world began to unravel.” His arrest was a “pivotal event” in his life:
“The man whom many considered an exemplary prophet of nonviolence had been branded a sex offender and cast adrift from the cause to which he had devoted himself, the people with whom he shared a vision of justice, and the organization that had provided him with his only secure employment. The arrest trailed Rustin for many years afterward. It severely restricted the public roles he was allowed to assume. Though he fought his way back from the sidelines, he did so at a price. As both the peace and civil-rights movements grew dramatically over the next decade, as a philosophy of nonviolence became familiar to Americans, Rustin’s influence was everywhere. Yet he remained always in the background, his figure shadowy and blurred, his importance masked. At any moment, his sexual history might erupt into consciousness. Sometimes it happened through the design of enemies to the causes for which he fought, sometimes through the machinations of personal rivals, sometimes through the nervous anxieties of movement comrades. But underneath it all was the unexamined, because as yet unnamed, homophobia that permeated midcentury American society.”
I dwell on this matter, and quote that passage at length, not out of prurience but because it is impossible to understand Rustin without confronting his sexuality and because the previous biography of him, Jervis Anderson’s Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen (1997), almost entirely avoids it. Perhaps Anderson was uncomfortable with the subject, but whatever the reason he mentions the Pasadena arrest perfunctorily and does not address Rustin’s homosexuality until near the end of his subject’s life, and then only inadequately.
D’Emilio certainly doesn’t harp on it — much to his credit, he resists the temptation to turn Rustin’s life into a gay-pride manifesto — but he puts it in proper perspective. He understands that Rustin’s life played out, until near its end in 1987, at a time when “homosexuality was something to be lived but not spoken of,” when “gay men spoke in coded language in mixed company and sometimes even among themselves,” when those two great geniuses of the theater, Noel Coward and Cole Porter, sublimated their own homosexuality and wrote only of heterosexual love.
In the circumstances, what Rustin did in his three quarters of a century can only be described as extraordinary. However skeptical one may legitimately be about the Marxism that shaped him and the socialism he professed (he was “deeply suspicious of the Communist Party, its autocratic nature, and its subservience to the Soviet Union”), one can only marvel at the devotion and passion with which he devoted his entire adult life not to the pursuit of fame, wealth or property but to the causes in which he believed.
Rustin’s work on behalf of pacifism is now largely forgotten, yet the lessons he learned from Mohandas Gandhi were essential to the role he later played as the chief disciple of nonviolent protest and resistance within the civil-rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. is commonly assumed to have fulfilled that role, but when the two met in 1955 “Rustin became teacher to a pupil whose fame would soon outstrip his mentor’s.” Rustin “had what King most immediately needed: extensive experience in nonviolent protest. But Rustin also had something more — years of serious meditation about how the philosophy, strategy, and tactics of nonviolence were of a piece and how together they might fashion a transformative revolutionary movement.”
For the balance of the 1950s, “Rustin applied himself to King’s emergence as a national leader.” The two had a falling out at decade’s end, but they patched things up in 1963 as plans began to take shape for the March on Washington. King was a transcendent orator and charismatic figure, but he had no gift for organization. As Rustin once said: “All King needed around him were people who had hard asses and perseverance. They didn’t have to have a pea in their head as long as they would sit down and be arrested and sit down on their hard behinds and persevere again. I know Martin very well . . . he did not have the ability to organize vampires to go to a bloodbath. The organization was done by Southern brutality.” So it was to Rustin that King turned to organize the march, and it was Rustin who made it an unalloyed triumph, in his own words, “one of the great days in American history.”
In the years that followed, Rustin drifted back onto the sidelines, not because of his homosexuality but because nonviolence was supplanted by urban riots and Black Power, because the end of “the long liberal ascendancy” diminished “the opportunities for Rustin to build popular movements of resistance” and because Rustin himself became more interested in coalition-building than in resistance. Yet late in life he also found happiness, with a much younger man. “After many years of seeking,” Rustin said, “I’ve finally found a solid, ongoing relationship with one individual with whom I have everything in common. . . . I spent years looking for exciting sex instead of looking for a person who was compatible.”
As homosexuals began to come out of the closet and take their due place in American life, Rustin seems to have been pleased, but, invited to write for a collection of articles by black gay men, he replied: “After much thought, I have decided that I must decline. . . . I did not ‘come out of the closet’ voluntarily — circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. The credit for that belongs to others.” That was written less than a year before his death. At the end as at the beginning, he was true to himself and his convictions. John D’Emilio has done him, and us, the great good service of showing how deep those convictions ran and how utterly central they were to his splendid life. *
Jonathan Yardley’s new e-mail address is email@example.com.