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Three Essays Rustin

In World War II he refused the draft, and in his pacifist zeal, refused even to accept a conscientious-objector status. Instead, he spent 28 months in federal prisons, a gruesome experience -- though even there, unstoppable, he campaigned to end racial segregation in the prison dining hall. Released from jail, he went to work for a tiny pacifist organization in New York, which sent him around the country during the late 1940's and early 50's to agitate against war, against nuclear arms, against European imperialism in Africa and, always, against Jim Crow. He was arrested frequently. He was beaten. He served 28 days on a North Carolina chain gang.

But then, in December 1955, the black citizens of Montgomery, Ala., led by Dr. King, mounted a boycott of the city buses in protest against the Jim Crow seating rules. King was brilliant, and yet he was only 26 and did not always know what to do. But Bayard Rustin did. He went to Montgomery, met King, visited his home -- and was dismayed to discover guns in the living room. Rustin spoke. King listened. Rustin was less than popular among some of the other leaders of the Montgomery boycott -- was it his phony British accent? his monarchical air? -- but King and the others dutifully put away their guns and agreed to be arrested in a Gandhian spirit of nonviolence and spiritual superiority, which was Rustin's advice, exactly.

Rustin proposed a strategy of reaching out to black churches elsewhere in the South, to broaden the boycott's base of support. And he offered King a larger coalition still, which was organized by Randolph and the handful of New York pacifists. They called on friends and allies in the labor movement, on good-hearted politicians, on singers and actors and on wealthy liberals with money to donate. And so, the young King, from his pulpit in Alabama, found himself soon enough at the head of a fledgling national coalition. And the coalition grew until, by 1963, with 250,000 people attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it proved to be a national power.

King was the leader of that gigantic coalition. But Rustin was the principal strategist.

Yet there was the question of Rustin's homosexuality, and his sometimes desperate promiscuity. On a couple of occasions he was arrested in parks, and in Pasadena, Calif., in 1953, for having sex with two men in a parked car, an incident that sent him back to jail for 60 days. The Pasadena arrest devastated his political career. Even his closest friends and comrades, some of them, turned on him with a real fury. That was why, during the Montgomery boycott, Rustin had to operate virtually as a secret agent, whispering his advice to King, and why, in Washington in 1963, he had to conceal the full extent of his leadership. He was all too vulnerable to political attacks, and there was nothing he could do about it.

John D'Emilio, in his new biography, ''Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin'' (Free Press), has provided the fullest description so far of the awful depth of Rustin's agony over these matters. It is heartbreaking to read about this -- heartbreaking to recall that, in the 1950's and 60's, the question of sexual orientation could not even be broached in public except as an accusation. But today is a different age. And why is that?

It is because the civil rights campaign, in its glorious fecundity, did give birth to many newer inspirations, one of which turned out to be the modern movement for gay rights. The gay movement began to gather popular support in 1969, six years after the Washington march, and advanced somewhat slowly after that. Yet it did advance, and continues to advance, even in the conservative realms of the Supreme Court, which just this year struck down a Texas sodomy law -- a huge event in the history of gay rights.

Mr. D'Emilio's book shows, in its frank and sympathetic discussion of Rustin's homosexuality, just how great the progress has been. The same forward step can be seen in the volume of Rustin's writings and interviews, ''A Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin'' (Cleis Press), that has been assembled by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise. Here you can read the appreciative comments that Rustin himself began to make, during his last years in the 1980's, on the gay movement.

And so, in the new atmosphere today, Americans are finally able to see Rustin as he was -- see him in his sexuality and in his sufferings, and see, as well, the monumental scale of his achievement. But does this mean that now, at last, the Washington march can be understood in full, with no more hidden aspects? The answer must be no, not really.

Thanks to the gay movement and to scholars like Mr. D'Emilio, it is possible today to speak about homosexuality with cool frankness. But it is not so easy to talk about a very different but equally pertinent theme, which is American socialism. Rustin was, after all, more than a pacifist.

His mentor A. Philip Randolph was one of the grand old men of American socialism, and Rustin followed in Randolph's footsteps, though with a Christian style of his own. Rustin as a young man briefly enrolled in the Young Communist League, but then withdrew and repudiated the Communist movement. Socialism, for both Rustin and Randolph, was a democratic idea, therefore an anti-Communist idea. It was an idea that had bubbled up from the the labor movement and had acquired its shape in the not-quite-Marxist political tradition of Eugene V. Debs. Rustin taught King some aspects of that idea -- though King, loyal to his own Baptist background, kept away from the Old Left style that clung so naturally to Randolph and Rustin.

Even so, socialism figured as one element of the 1963 march, and not a small one, either. Why, after all, did the march call for ''jobs'' as well as ''freedom''? The word jobs might sound today like political boilerplate, filling space and meaning nothing. But the word said, in effect, that securing rights was only half the program -- that America's economy needed to be reorganized as well. In the first years after the march, when some of the main legislative goals of the civil rights movement congealed into federal law, Rustin came up with the idea, which he attributed to Randolph, of steering their carefully constructed national coalition in a new direction, toward the economic reorganization of society.

Rustin wrote an essay touching on this theme, ''From Protest to Politics,'' which is included in the collection of his writings. He also wrote a sophisticated political program called ''A Freedom Budget for All Americans,'' which unfortunately is not included.

But nothing came of the Freedom Budget. The giant civil rights coalition, instead of taking up the economic issue, fell into a thousand pieces in the later 1960's and 70's. Some people plunged into the new ''identity'' movements of those years. Others stayed loyal to the trade unions and were duly accused of having become ''conservative.'' And the coalition was no more.

As for Rustin, he chose to be a union man under those circumstances, as could have been predicted. He spent the rest of his life advancing the legacy of Randolph in the AFL-CIO and working for the American Federation of Teachers -- a job that caused him to be vilified in some quarters as a traitor to the left. Rustin was not a traitor, though -- even if his writings show that from time to time he grew a little ornery and declined to grant even the slightest merit to his critics on the left. The problem was just that, by the 1970's, Rustin's language of economic democracy had become hard for other people to understand, even people on the left, which was precisely his complaint about them.

Today it can be said with only slight exaggeration that homosexuality has become a perfectly proper topic for public conversation, even with schoolchildren, while the very concept of a redistribution of wealth in America has somehow morphed into the great unmentionable.

Talk about ironies in the life of Bayard Rustin!

For even now, when the most painful of Rustin's secrets have come into the open, some last aspect of the March on Washington remains, in spite of everything, unremembered and undiscussed. It is the aspect that in 1963 went under the slogan ''Jobs,'' which meant economic equality for all Americans -- which is what people like Randolph and Rustin used to call, in an antique rhetoric that hardly anyone understands today, ''socialism.''

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It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me. He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life. J. Edgar Hoover was spreading stories, and there were very real efforts to entrap him. I think at a given point he had to reach a decision. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.

He finally came to the decision that he needed to talk with some people in his organization. Reverend Thomas Kilgore, a good friend of mine and pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, was a man Dr. King turned to. Reverend Kilgore asked Martin to set up a committee to advise him. The committee finally came to the decision that my sex life was a burden to Dr. King. I think it was around July when they advised him that he should ask me to leave. I told Dr. King that if advisors closest to him felt I was a burden, then rather than put him in a position that he had to say leave, I would go. He was just so harassed that I felt it was my obligation to relieve him of as much of that as I could. Someone sent his wife a tape in which he was supposedly having an affair with another woman.

There was also another problem: some of the people in the Democratic Party were distressed at Dr. King’s marching, as he did in 1960 and in 1964, against the conventions of both of the major parties calling for more immediate relief to black people through Congress. Adam Clayton Powell, for some reason I will never understand, actually called Dr. King when he was in Brazil and indicated that he was aware of some relationship between me and Dr. King, which, of course, there was not. This added to his anxiety about additional discussions of sex.

I don’t want you to think that Dr. King was the only civil rights leader who raised these questions. Although Dr. King had been relieved by my officially leaving, he continued to call on me as Mr. Garrow makes clear in his book, Bearing the Cross, over and over. Now this all took place around 1960; but in 1963 when the question came up whether I should be the director of the March on Washington, I got 100 percent cooperation. On this occasion, it was Roy Wilkins who raised the question. Roy was my friend. He told me he was going into the meeting to object. He made it quite clear that he had absolutely no prejudice toward me or toward homosexuality; but he said: “I put the movement first above all things, and I believe it is my moral obligation to go into this meeting and say that with all of your talent, I don’t think you should lead this important march. They are not only going to raise the question of homosexuality. Although I know you are a Quaker and I know you paid a heavy price for your conscientious objection, they are going to call you a draft dodger.” He was referring to my three years in prison as a conscientious objector in 1943, ’44, and ’45. “But,” Mr. Wilkins also said, “you were once, and you’ve never said you weren’t, a member of the Young Communist League. Therefore, they are going to raise three questions: the question of homosexuality, the question of draft-dodges, the question of your being a Communist. The fact that you are a Socialist is a problem, because people in the United States don’t differentiate between Socialism and Communism.” We also had a long discussion about how the Communists had co-opted the term Socialist, although the two systems are totally different: one is democratic and one is totalitarian.

Mr. Randolph [who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute] took the view that it was important for him to have me. Mr. Randolph was finally made director of the march. “But I want to warn you before you vote that if I’m made leader, I’m going to be given the privilege of determining my staff,” he said. “I also want you to know I’ll make Bayard Rustin my deputy.” He turned to Martin and said: “Dr. King, how do you vote?” And Dr. King said: “I vote yes.” He turned to Jim Farmer. Jim Farmer said: “I vote yes.” Then he turned to Roy Wilkins. Roy said: “Phil, you’ve got me over a barrel, I’ll go along with you.” So, it was never a prejudicial situation; it was that given the attitude at that time, people felt this was a problem. I think there were others who felt: How many problems can a guy have and expect us to elevate him to the directorship of this march?

From an interview conducted by Redvers Jeanmarie, March 1987.

From Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin,edited by Don Weise. Copyright 2014. Excerpted by permission of Cleis Press.