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A violent path traveled by a nonviolent man

Tom Wicker is the author, most recently, of "Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America."

“Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin” is one of the saddest stories you will ever read. Rustin was a charismatic leader, a lifelong pacifist, an imprisoned conscientious objector during World War II, a leading American teacher of Gandhian nonviolence, perhaps the prime mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the major planner and organizer of black America’s triumphal March on Washington in 1963. But Rustin also was gay, decades before the Supreme Court legitimated private sexual activity, and that cost him the backing of even some radicals, black as well as white, for whom he had been an eloquent and courageous leader for nearly 40 years. He died in 1987 an almost forgotten figure -- “a strategist without a movement,” the New York Times labeled him in his last years.

In another sense, as made clear in John D’Emilio’s comprehensive biography, Bayard Rustin died full of years and honor, honor that came all but inevitably to a life lived purposefully and passionately. Committed to the causes of peace and African American advancement, Rustin had the vision and bravery to lead a racially mixed group of protesters on a “Journey of Reconciliation” by bus through the Jim Crow South in 1947, 13 years before the Greensboro sit-ins, and in his old age to speak out against the angry nationalist and separatist appeals of some black radicals. “Separatism is the opposite of self-determination,” he declared. “It can only lead to the continued subjection of blacks.”

Rustin already was a radical leader and an outspoken proponent of nonviolence with a long arrest and prison record when, on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. In a city restive under segregation, her arrest prompted the celebrated Montgomery bus boycott. Black ministers set up the Montgomery Improvement Assn. to coordinate the boycott and chose a newcomer to the city, the Rev. King, to lead it. In February 1956, a group of New York sympathizers, centered on the War Resisters’ League and Liberation magazine, dispatched Rustin to help guide the MIA and King toward nonviolence. Rustin arrived in Montgomery only a few days after a White Citizens’ Council meeting declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.”

Rustin and King hit it off well, though the more experienced Rustin found that the Baptist minister “had very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out.” King’s house, at the time, sheltered a substantial arsenal of guns, and he was ill-prepared for his mission, Rustin recalled, “either tactically, strategically or in his understanding of nonviolence.” But “the glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself.” As history records, King became in fact “the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the twentieth century.” Even before he met King, Rustin had persuaded more than 100 leaders of the MIA, all indicted on charges that they violated a state antiboycott law, to follow a Gandhian tactic. They should be proud of the indictment, he suggested, put on their best clothes and give themselves up rather than being pursued by white policemen. To the consternation of white authorities, they did.

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Later, Rustin and King developed a close relationship, despite their superficial differences -- the one a tall, thin, elegantly dressed, sophisticated New York Quaker; the other short, overweight, reared within the confines of segregated Southern society and the conservative black church. Both, for one thing, held strong Christian convictions, and both were fully dedicated to the black cause. Through his influence on King, D’Emilio argues, Rustin was “as responsible as anyone else for the insinuation of nonviolence into the very heart of what became the most powerful social movement in twentieth-century America.”

Rustin’s stay in Montgomery was cut short, partly by police pressures (he was followed by squad cars and had extra bolts installed on his hotel room windows) but primarily by the fears of his New York and Montgomery colleagues (and his own) that his sexual history and brief membership in the Communist Party -- from which he had resigned in 1941 to protest the Hitler-Stalin pact -- would be disclosed to the detriment of the boycott. Reports of his arrest some years earlier for “cruising” in Pasadena were particularly feared. Finally, nervous MIA leaders unceremoniously smuggled Rustin out of Montgomery in the trunk of a car. As a skilled organizer, however, he was able to mobilize public support and raise large sums for the boycott, notably at a Madison Square Garden rally that attracted Eleanor Roosevelt and a number of entertainment stars, including Tallulah Bankhead of Alabama.

Rustin hammered away at the necessity for building mass resistance among Southern blacks on the model of the Montgomery boycott. It was Rustin who saw in the Montgomery movement an opportunity for luring the influential black church out of its traditional “Come to Jesus” emphasis into a new awareness of the need for social action in the South. In later years, he “knew in a flash,” in conversation with A. Philip Randolph (another once revered, now neglected black leader), that he would devote himself to the March on Washington the two envisioned. It’s still not clear which of them originated the idea, but it became a reality after the “children’s march” and other searing events in Birmingham, including Bull Connor’s use of dogs and firehoses against black demonstrators. The Birmingham crisis led to President Kennedy’s belated but vital decision to speak out on the racial crisis, memorably terming it a “moral issue” for all Americans. “For the black people of this nation,” Rustin wrote, “Birmingham became the moment of truth.... Tokenism is finished....The Negro masses are no longer prepared to wait for anybody.... They are going to move. Nothing can stop them.”

Kennedy’s speech and the submission to Congress of his civil rights bill lent immediacy to the idea of a march. Rustin expected to be the director of a Big Six leadership group -- King, Randolph, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- for planning, financing and management. Wilkins objected, citing as his principal reason the Pasadena arrest, but Randolph outmaneuvered him by taking the directorship himself and naming Rustin as his deputy. Today, the March on Washington is remembered mostly for King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, King had little to do with preparing or managing the massive event. That was largely the work of Rustin, whose organizational genius produced a turnout from all over the nation that astonished the Washington police with its size and orderliness and confounded J. Edgar Hoover, who had done his best to stop it.

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This seems to be the year to redeem Rustin’s memory from the musty archives. A collection of his writings, “Time on Two Crosses,” has just been released. It includes an informative introduction and 48 of Rustin’s essays, speeches and interviews, encompassing the years 1942 to 1987. The whole is an excellent record not only of the major human rights gains and losses of those years but also of Rustin’s personal involvement in most of the era’s efforts for peace and justice in the United States, India, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Especially notable in “Two Crosses” is Rustin’s account (unfortunately the editors do not specify where it was published) of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation through Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Fifteen protesters -- eight white, seven black -- made the trip in Greyhound and Trailways buses, testing the Supreme Court’s decision in Irene Morgan vs. the Commonwealth of Virginia, which outlawed segregation in interstate travel, and anticipating the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. Over two weeks, despite the protesters’ dogged adherence to nonviolence, 12 of them were arrested, including Rustin, who drew 30 days on a North Carolina chain gang for violating the state’s Jim Crow laws (never mind the Morgan decision). The most dangerous resistance was encountered in Chapel Hill, N.C., of all places, home of the University of North Carolina, then headed by the great Southern liberal Dr. Frank Graham. In Rustin’s account, white “taxi drivers standing around the bus station were becoming aroused.... One hit [James] Peck [white editor of the Workers’ Defense League News Bulletin] a hard blow on the head, saying, ‘Coming down here to stir up the niggers.’ Peck ... said nothing.” As the situation grew more dangerous, the protesters were driven by another Southern liberal, the Rev. Charles Jonas, a white Presbyterian minister, to his home, with the taxi drivers in pursuit. They gathered outside the house, and an anonymous caller threatened to set it on fire. The arrival of police 20 minutes later eased the threat, and before nightfall the protesters were driven in private cars to Greensboro, where in 1960 the lunch counter sit-ins would begin, again in violation of custom and Jim Crow.

Five years earlier, in 1942, Rustin had a foretaste of the reception given to the Journey of Reconciliation. Traveling alone by bus from Louisville, Ky., to Nashville, he was ordered by the bus driver to sit in the back. He refused, saying calmly: “If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.” Tennessee police soon stopped the bus and four of them again tried to make Rustin move to the rear. He again refused and the four beat and kicked him, dragged him off the bus, then beat and kicked him some more. Incredibly, the proponent of Gandhi merely told them, “There is no need to beat me. I am not resisting you.” Whereupon, not entirely unusual in a South and at a time in which such a scene could take place, three white men got off the bus and stopped the cops from further violence. Ultimately a Nashville prosecutor named West dismissed him “and said, very kindly, ‘You may go, Mister Rustin.’”

In his later years, to some old colleagues, Bayard Rustin seemed to be moving to the right, in the classic pattern of age leading to conservatism. He denied the pattern but not the evolution of his position: “I know that I have changed,” the New York Times quoted him in its obituary. “But the changes have been in response to the objective conditions.... I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble.” He had become familiar with presidents, accepted honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale and served on Jimmy Carter’s Holocaust Memorial Commission. He had opposed decentralization and community control of schools as a way of “institutionalizing one of the worst evils in the history of this society -- segregation” through the disingenuous transfer of authority to the black community. And though he was no longer in the mainstream of the black movement (“Bayard has no credibility in the black community,” said Farmer, with the spite of an old rival), Rustin was untiring still in his efforts to secure justice for refugees and immigrants. Perhaps because he had not been prominent in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, he took a particular interest in the sufferings of Southeast Asians displaced by war and destruction (caused not least by the U.S. military in Vietnam).

By the end of the ‘70s, Rustin had resumed his passionate collecting of antique furniture and religious objects and had settled into a comfortable domesticity with a young social activist named Walter Naegle, with whom, Rustin told an interviewer, he was “just completely simpatico.” The old radical soon became more easygoing, Naegle said. “You know, you’re not going to solve all the world’s problems, the world’s been around for a hell of a lot longer than you have. You do what you can.... [Bayard] was more relaxed, more philosophical....[He] was really able to enjoy the time that he had with friends and people.” Yet at age 74, pursuing the causes of refugees and dissidents, Rustin traveled to three continents. In the months after his 75th birthday on March 17, 1987, D’Emilio reports, “he journeyed to Thailand to visit once again the camps for Cambodian refugees, to Chile and Paraguay to make contact with individuals working to restore democracy ... and to Haiti to assess whether [proposed elections could be held] without violence and intimidation.” In August of that year, Rustin was dead, a victim of peritonitis followed by a heart attack -- at least his second. He had remained, said Vernon E. Jordan Jr., “the chairman of the ideas committee” for black leadership, “an intellectual bank where we all had unlimited accounts and were never told that we were overdrawn.” Nor had he wavered in the belief he shared with A. Philip Randolph that “freedom is never a final act” or in his acceptance of the “significant message” he had found in the Jewish prophets -- that “God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What the gods require of us is that we not stop trying.”

The record (if not those who criticized him in his last years) suggests that Bayard Rustin never did. Witness his late attitude toward gay rights, for years not much of a concern despite his own sexuality. “Today, the barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black, it’s the gay community,” he said in a 1986 interview. “There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won’t accept [gays]. That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.”

Some readers may feel that D’Emilio does not examine critically enough Rustin’s late-life drift to the right. Others may think he passes too lightly over Rustin’s sometimes aggressive sexuality. In D’Emilio’s telling, Rustin’s battles with other civil rights leaders and radicals do not reflect much glory on them -- Wilkins and the NAACP hierarchy, in particular. King’s most devoted admirers may consider “Lost Prophet” too generous in its estimate of Rustin’s influence. The book’s focus on foreign developments and Gandhism can seem to be at the expense of Rustin’s pursuit of justice in American life.

Overall, however, D’Emilio succeeds in detailing a highly useful life and -- a prime task of biography -- in redeeming a nearly forgotten figure and assigning him a proper role in an era that becomes more beclouded and mythologized with every passing year.

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