From Protest to…

From Protest to…

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
by John D’Emilio
The Free Press, 2003, 576 pp., $35.00Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin
Devon W. Carbado and Donald Wiese, eds.
Cleis Press, 2003, 355 pp., $16.95


Bayard Rustin was a stubborn man, and for most of his life that stubbornness served him beautifully. He shrugged off racial stigma during his early-1930s high school years in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he faced the usual lunatic cruelties (he was never allowed to enter the home of his white best friend). In adulthood he maintained his political commitments despite two and a half years in federal penitentiaries for draft resistance during the Second World War; twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina following a 1947 campaign against bus segregation; and a nationally publicized 1953 arrest for having sex with two men on a Pasadena roadside.

A more fragile person might easily have fallen into despair after the Pasadena arrest. Rustin was then forty years old, a socialist, an anticommunist, and a pacifist of a radical Christian stripe-which meant, by definition, that he found most of the American left (to say nothing of American society as a whole) to be deeply complicit in evil. And now even his own tiny niche, the circle of left-wing pacifists clustered around A.J. Muste and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, rejected him. The FOR announced Rustin’s departure from its staff in a press release that mournfully referred to his “problem.”

At that point it must have been tempting for Rustin to withdraw from political life, to immerse himself entirely in the Manhattan bohemia where he already had many friends. He could probably have found a job at one of the antique shops he frequented in Greenwich Village, which could hardly have paid less than his old staff position at FOR. He could have spent his 1950s evenings in MacDougal Street coffee shops, playing chess and expostulating about the insanity of the arms race, adding that he used to be an activist, once, and still would be, if only there were a corner of the left that despised Soviet tyranny and hated U.S. militarism and tolerated sexual difference.

But that sort of withdrawal was not in Rustin’s nature. By the end of 1953 he found a new position at the War Resisters League, a secular cousin of FOR. (Through the League he eventually developed deep friendships with Michael Harrington and other members of the Shachtmanite-socialist milieu.) In 1956, he went to Montgomery to assist in the city’s bus boycott. There he met Martin Luther King, Jr., and the two men had long conversations about how to apply Gandhian and Quaker principles of nonviolence to the civil rights struggle. That relationship reached its apogee in 1963, when Rustin, more than any other si...