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On Bayard Rustin: Why we Need Him Today

For the past several years, around the Independence Day Holiday in the United States, I select a book that examines an event, a space, or a person of significance to the history of my country. For several years I read biographies. Last year I read the book Freedom Summer, by Bruce Watson (2010) in honor of the 50th anniversary of that important summer in the history of the African American Civil Rights Movement.

Lost Prophet Book Cover jPGThis year I returned to biography. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (D’Emilio, 2003) has long been on my bookshelf – waiting patiently for the precise moment when the messages of the book would most resonate.

I give this book a ringing endorsement. John D’Emilio’s writing is narrative genius. His weaving the tale of Rustin’s life – the personal struggles Rustin endured as a pacifist, peace activist, civil rights leader, and gay Black man – flows seamlessly alongside seventy years of United States History that saw both World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the nation’s struggle with African American Civil Rights, and the start of the GLB(T) Civil Rights movement.

Who was Bayard Rustin?

As the man largely responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, assisting with the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and training Martin Luther King Jr. in the tactics of non-violence, Bayard Rustin is one of the most pivotal, transformational, and consequential leaders of the African American Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In the grand narrative and mythology surrounding the movement, we are taught that King’s harnessing of non-violence was foundational, essential to the plan. D’Emilio paints a different picture, noting “more than anyone else, Rustin brought the message and methods of Gandhi to the United States” (D’Emilio, 2003, p. 1). It was Rustin who taught King the edicts and methods that were eventually embraced and utilized in the non-violent moments of the movement.

If you have never heard Rustin’s name, D’Emilio might attribute your lack of knowing to Rustin openly embracing his gay identity: an indictment on the Civil Rights movement, which sought to minimize media attention surrounding homosexuality within the ranks of the movement. D’Emilio might also attribute the unknowing to Rustin’s involvement with lesser-known organizations mobilizing against military conflict, war, and nuclear proliferation. Just as easily, one gets the sense that Rustin was a behind-the-scenes strategist, organizer, and leader. D’Emilio paints him as a man unafraid to speak his mind, but aware of liabilities associated with sexual identity, and perhaps, resultantly, more comfortable working behind the scenes – putting political savvy to work to advance the causes for which he cared most deeply: nonviolence, peace activism, nuclear disarmament, anti-nationalism, Black civil rights, and economic justice.

Pacifism & Prison

Raised as a Quaker in Pennsylvania, Rustin was a lifelong pacifist. “He believed that violence could never bring justice and that war could never bring peace” (D’Emilio, 2003, pp. 1-2). His activism started early. At the outbreak of World War II, Rustin was working for an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) – an anti-war organization working against expansive nationalistic military endeavors. Eventually, his draft number came up. Objecting to participate on religious grounds, Rustin was sent to Federal Prison, where he served a total of 28 months.

D’Emilio (2003) points to Rustin’s activism in prison, noting “Rustin approached incarceration from a stance of moral righteousness” (p. 82). In prison, Rustin came to understand lack of morality associated with the experience of being imprisoned, writing “’I learned that prisons are designed to brutalize persons and not to help them’” (cited in D’Emilio, 2003, p. 85).

Rustin sought to change the moral nature of the federal prison where he was incarcerated. “To Rustin’s mind, the prison, not the pacifist, needed fixing” (p. 82). Here, Rustin directly attacked racism and segregation. He sought, and achieved the right, to teach history courses to White prisoners: “’Being taught by a Negro is for them [White inmates] a revolutionary situation ,’” (p. 83) he wrote in a letter to FOR colleagues. Further, Rustin agitated toward de-segregating meals – a battle he very nearly won until he was caught in a sexual act with another male inmate.

Bayard Rustin JPGThe Rhizomatic Roots of Racial Activism

The narrative of Rustin’s time in prison is intriguing and highly important in three regards. Not only does D’Emilio uncover and present a history of race activism in Rustin occurring long before the traditional start of the “Civil Rights Movement,” but also demonstrates and reminds readers that World War II highlighted the contradictions inherent in the United States – a country fighting for freedom and equality, while denying equal protection under the law to African American citizens. D’Emilio re-emphasizes that the rhizomatic roots of the Civil Rights victories achieved during the 1950’s and 1960’s started long before those momentous decades.

We need this reminder today – to remember that the struggle against racism is long, and importantly, that small moments of struggle often lead to long-term systemic change. Reading Rustin’s story takes us beyond the rhetoric of King – The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice – providing concrete examples of how that arc is bent.

Black and Gay: Will we Celebrate and Educate?

Second, it is in the accounting of Rustin’s prison time that D’Emilio paints a picture of Rustin struggling with his sexual orientation, ultimately deciding to remain true to who he was as a Black gay man. At a time when homosexuality and gay politics was not openly discussed, understanding how Rustin’s actions and choices – both good and bad – led to his leading an authentic life is critically important.

We need this reminder today – to remember that the gay rights movement, like the Civil Rights movement, reaches back long into history. In the gay community, we need to recognize and celebrate Rustin’s contribution to the gay rights movement – one with which he was not intimately involved, but one that he ultimately contributed to by staying true to himself. The gay community, which continues to struggle with racism, needs to recognize that Rustin was a founder of the movement in the United States, even if indirectly. This needs to be celebrated and educated. And finally, though we live in a society that is supposedly more “equal” in terms of accepting gay individuals, too many young people do not understand history or see role models in history. Gay role models are often White (Harvey Milk, for example). Thus, Rustin might serve as an important historical reference point, particularly for Black men or men of color struggling with their own sexual orientation.

Prison Reform

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is Rustin’s writing and discussion about the immorality of prison. “Prisons, he wrote, ‘are schools for crime and immorality’” (D’Emilio, 2003, p. 122). Rustin sought to change the way we viewed prisons – he saw them as immoral places. People in the United States are engaged in a critical debate about the future of the prison industrial complex. This is not simply about important discussions regarding criminal justice reform or mass incarceration, but about the entire premise of the role of prisons in society. What could we learn from Rustin about the immorality of the system, beyond what we already know?

Peace Activism in a Time of Unending War

Following World War II, the United States quickly turned from a country reticent about war to one of increasing militarization, set on permanent war footing: “A country whose military establishment in 1938 had been smaller than Belgium’s was moving toward permanent militarization. As it did so, it grew suspicious of dissent and nonconformity of every kind and searched for enemies in its midst” (D’Emilio, 2003, p. 124).

We are still living with the effects of these decisions today. Drone warfare. Major Presidential candidates calling for war with Iran as part of their platform. Domestic surveillance. The list could go on. What can we learn from Rustin about peace activism in a time of unending war? I believe readers of this book can understand several important lessons, including the importance of coalitions, the necessity to look beyond nationalistic borders to war-mongering in other parts of an intra-connected world, and a dedication to peace activism even when one is viewed outside the mainstream.

Perhaps most importantly, Rustin was adamantly anti-nationalist. There are profound questions that we might glean from this position. If you have read post-colonial theory, for example, you might recognize the problematics associated with strong nationalist sentiment. In an era where we often talk about the ever-increasingly connected world, D’Emilio (2003) reminds us “Rustin was an internationalist long before globalization became a catchword in American life. He viewed nationalism as a destructive force in human affairs and conducted himself as if world citizenship already existed” (p. 2).

There are incredible stories of Rustin’s activism regarding nuclear disarmament initiatives around the world. This is an often-untold story of the Cold War era, and importantly, moves beyond the boundaries of just United States/Russia relations to world political alliances.

Here we are, in the United States, along with several allies, attempting to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is being done, largely, through diplomacy. Would Rustin approve of the plan? Regardless, as we seek to eliminate the threat of nuclear war, Rustin’s lifetime of activism against nuclear proliferation deserves our attention.

Rustin as Civil Rights Icon

If you appreciate the history of the African American Civil Rights movement in the United States this book will not disappoint. The history of relationships – between Bayard Rustin and civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X – are intense as they are contentious. Rustin is responsible for organizing the March on Washington in 1963. He was pivotal in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he strongly advocated for the insertion of economic issues into the Civil Rights movement.

These issues are not resolved in the United States. We have new movements continuing the struggle – the #blacklivesmatter movement and Dream Defenders are two examples. What we learn from D’Emilio’s book is that such movements often disagreed vehemently – about tactics, about leadership, and about organization. We can learn from history as we continue the Civil Rights struggles of our time.


What is critical is that we recognize Rustin as an icon of Civil Rights. That we celebrate. That we educate. The issues Rustin faced throughout his life, and those causes for which he fought so vehemently, still confront us in the United States and around the world today. Will we learn from Rustin’s writings, his story, struggles, and accomplishments? Will we honor Rustin’s legacy?


D’Emilio, J. (2003). Lost prophet: The life and times of Bayard Rustin. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Watson, B. (2010). Freedom summer: The savage season of 1964 that made Mississippi burn and made America a democracy. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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