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A violent path traveled by a nonviolent man

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, John D'Emilio, The Free Press: 568 pp., $35 Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise, Cleis Press: 356 pp., $16.95 paper

August 24, 2003|Tom Wicker | 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.

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.

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