Bayard Rustin's life is depicted in a new play and a biography by John D'Emilio.
The modern civil rights era produced many iconic images.
Rosa Parks sitting alone and steadfast in a Montgomery bus. John Lewis and other students bloodied but unbowed during the 1961 Freedom Rides in Alabama. Bull Connor’s minions turning on the fire hoses and releasing the dogs against protesters in Birmingham in 1963.
And, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. departing from the script at the Lincoln Memorial and proclaiming his dream of racial equality at the March on Washington in August, 1963.
Each of those pictures, and the people in them, have endured in our collective memory. The courage, determination and tenacity of people like Parks, Lewis and King have been widely acknowledged by the larger society.
Other equally brave people have been less remembered, through.
Movement strategist, dedicated social justice proponent and March on Washington architect Bayard Rustin is one of them.
During the past few years, though, Rustin and his accomplishments have been pulled out of obscurity, where they languished in part due to people’s discomfort with his homosexuality.
Tomorrow, Eye of the Storm, a play about Rustin’s life, will debut at the William Hatch Auditorium, 1000 North Ridgeland Avenue, in Oak Park, Illinois.
Performed by members of the Open Door Repertory Company, the play will be attended by luminaries like U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, the Honorable David Pope, President of the Village of Oak Park, State Senator Don Harmon, and both State Representatives Karen Yarbrough and Deborah Graham.
People interested in purchasing tickets or who want more information can call 708-802-1723 or visit www.opendoorrep.org.
For those who are unable to attend the play or who simply want more information about Rustin’s complex and contributory life, there is University of Illinois-Chicago Professor John D’Emilio’s award-winning biography, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.
Rustin lived a rich, long and fascinating life, and D’Emilio, who co-authored with Estelle Freedman the pioneering Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, is more than up to the task of rendering it in vivid detail and a coherent framework.
The Rustin that emerges on the pages of Lost Prophet is a gifted, charismatic man with a lifelong and passionate commitment to social justice and a near unparalleled strategic vision. Yet, because of societal prejudices against gay and lesbian people, Rustin endured repeated periods of being outcast from, and betrayed by, members of the movement.
His protests against injustice began early.
D’Emilio draws on interviews with aging residents of Rustin’s home town in West Chester, Pennsylvania, who recalled his refusing to leave a restaurant where he could not get service until he eventually was ejected.
As a young man, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he was powerfully influenced by pacificst A.J. Muste. Rustin showed himself willing to sacrifice for his ideals by serving 28 months in prison, starting in 1944, for refusing to register for, and serve in, the United States Army.
This experience, and his subsequent travel to India, where he was formally trained in the Gandhian discipline of nonviolence in many ways formed the crucible on which his unyielding commitment to social change was forged.
Rustin first intersected with King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where King initially was a compromise choice as leader because he was new in town and thus had no prior negative history with different factions within the black community. The two formed a close bond, in which Rustin served largely as mentor and tactician.
It was a fruitful partnership.
Although Rustin worked tirelessly for the causes he believed in so fiercely, he preferred to stay in the background and out of the public limelight. King emerged as the face of the burgeoning movement, helping to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and taking the effort to dismantle legal segregation throughout the South.
There was a catch, though.
Even during his days in prison as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin experienced difficulty due to his being gay in a society that arguably opposed homosexuality even more vehemently than it suppressed the rights of African Americans.
His 1953 arrest in Pasadena, California for “lewd”conduct-Rustin was performing oral sex on a man in a parked car-was just one of the times his sexual orientation became the source of public sanction and later ostracism from within and without the movement.
Rustin endured many painful periods in his life in which people dear to him, from Muste to King, either urged him to “discipline” himself by essentially repressing his sexuality or cut ties with the man who had been responsible for much of the organization’s success.
It is important to note that some of the attacks came from within the community. Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, for example, called Rustin out, precipitating King’s shunning Rustin during a very dark period for Rustin in the late 50s.
D’Emilio effectively shows the sense of betrayal Rustin experienced on a personal level while also analyzing the anti-gay pressures and structures that existed in the society at the time.
At moments, the movement held firm.
Before the March on Washington, South Carolina Senator and former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond started raising the issue of Rustin’s homosexuality as a way to distract from and discredit the impending march.
Where previously other leaders had forced Rustin into exile from the action he cherished and believed in so deeply, this time they confronted Thurmond and defended the march’s planner. A. Philip Randolph emerges during this part of the book as a particularly staunch supporter of Rustin.
Like many advocates for nonviolence, Rustin found himself at increasing odds with members of the Black Power movement as the 60s progressed. D’Emilio also explores Rustin’s surprising reluctance to forthrightly denounce the War in Vietnam, showing how his support of Democratic Party nominee Hubert Humphrey during the 1968 presidential election left him estranged from black militant and white antiwar protestors.
During that time, Rustin was called a strategist without a movement-a label, which, if accurate, was not permanent.
During the last two decades of his life, Rustin turned his focus to global issues, working for the rights of Southeast Asian refugees and supporting the efforts of Lech Walesa and others in the Solidarity movement.
He also spoke out about gay rights.
Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner and a source of great joy during the last 10 years of his life, encouraged him in that cause.
In 1987, after a lifetime of working for social change, Rustin died.
Hopefully, D’Emilio’s textured portrait, the play and other efforts to preserve Rustin’s legacy will lead to this dynamic and valiant warrior for social justice being remembered by a grateful society for the vital contributions he made.