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Michael G. Long: I Must Resist

Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s sexual orientation continues to obscure his legacy

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I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters

Michael G. Long

City Lights Books, paperback

In March 1944, as World War II raged, a 32-year-old gay black Quaker named Bayard Rustin took up residence at the Ashland Federal Correctional Institution in Kentucky to serve a 28-month sentence for refusing the military draft. He set about desegregating the prison facilities.

With the help of some other conscientious objectors (COs), he convinced the guards of cellblock E to open the gate separating the races, and one Sunday Rustin walked through that gate to join his fellows to listen to a symphony. It was then that Elam “Judge” Huddleston, the former state treasurer of Kentucky serving time for some legal transgression now lost to history, got a mop handle from a supply closet and “hit Bayard a mighty blow over the head.”

When other COs tried to intervene, Rustin stopped them, and Huddleston hit Rustin (and the COs) again and again, breaking the stick, before shaking uncontrollably and falling to the floor. When guards arrived, Rustin—with a lump on his head and a broken wrist—“insisted that Huddleston not be punished.”

Rustin, who would become one of the most important civil rights leaders of the last century, thus earned the respect of the institution’s warden while demonstrating the power of courageous nonviolence.

In I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, editor Michael G. Long assembles an impressive narrative of Rustin’s remarkable achievements, helping on this 100th anniversary of his birth to revive the complex legacy of the civil rights struggle’s hidden man.

Bigotry (as well as political expediency) kept Rustin in the shadows during the time of his greatest achievements, as when he organized the 250,000-strong 1963 march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was not just an out gay man, but the kind of man who, on occasion, solicited sex with strangers passing by in cars. This he did in San Francisco in 1953, drawing a 60-day jail sentence. It was that criminal record—as much or more than his association with so-called “known communists”—that made his open service in the civil rights cause problematic in the coming decades.

The people of the American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League, and the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation never had a problem with Rustin’s “morals charge.” But the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other civil rights organizations consistently felt the need to betray Rustin when threatened with exposure of his sexuality. And Rustin, with his keen sense of power politics, went along in the interest of the movement. This willingness to accept humiliation in the service of power was both Rustin’s greatest strength and arguably his greatest weakness, as his later politics became hard to square with the brave and militant pacifism he demonstrated as a young man.

The book is a resource for scholars and laypeople alike, but its lack of source notes (it is not clear who is quoted regarding the Huddleston attack, for instance) limits its usefulness, and it suffers other lapses. Aside from his initial letters from prison to his partner Davis Platt, for instance, we learn very little about Rustin’s personal life—much less his emotions. We see instead press releases he sent and FBI reports of his activities (the bureau bugged his apartment). A lover he met late in life is introduced but all but disappears near the end of the book.

And there are a few editorial comments that don’t quite compute. In 1964 Rustin was making $71 a week. This is “shocking,” says the editor, without explaining why. In 1964, $71 was equivalent to about $500 today, presumably a low salary for someone of Rustin’s experience and talents. But then again, peace movement participants seldom demand or receive much money for their toils. This is something that separates them from both labor movement leaders and much of the civil rights leadership, members of which in many cases did and still do very well while ostensibly “doing good.”

That the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. included, tended to hold Rustin at arm’s length whenever his sexuality threatened to become public illustrates the complex political and social web that those movements traversed. In 1960, when Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to claim that King and Rustin were gay lovers, King folded, accepting Rustin’s resignation as his assistant.

By 1967 Rustin was a reliable foot soldier for the Democratic Party, coming to the aid of the now-besieged Powell. With a congressional investigation on Powell tightening, Rustin argued that Powell should be left alone until Southern racist congressmen were run from that body. Anything less would be “subtle racism,” Rustin wrote, prefiguring the race-card politics that have dominated ever since.

Historian C. Vann Woodward warned against this strategy, saying it, in effect, made Powell a national symbol for the civil rights cause. “The enemies of the movement would like nothing better than to identify the whole cause with a discredited figure,” he wrote in January 1967.

Rustin had a much broader view. He personally knew much about what a “discredited figure” could become. That being in the mainstream might force upon Rustin choices that would anger and even alienate his friends and allies in the civil rights and peace movements was a given. Rustin thought that supporting the administration of then President Lyndon Johnson and playing a strategic, vote-counting game in Congress would bring more gains—and more money—to his people than marches and civil disobedience.

By mid-1967 Rustin’s journey to the political mainstream was complete, and the FBI man in New York wrote to headquarters about closing Rustin’s file. But Rustin’s political work was far from done. He continued to lead and to inspire, as in a note he wrote in 1969 to Maryann Greenstone, who had complained that she was tired of dealing with anti-Semitism within the African-American community. Rustin said he was sympathetic to her point of view but

. . . I am not sympathetic to your cry of being tired. Mrs. Greenstone, I am 59 years old. I am black and I have lived with and fought racism my entire life. . . .
I have been in a bombed church. My best friends, closest associates, and colleagues-in-arms have been beaten and assassinated. Yet, to remain human and to fulfill my commitment to a just society, I must continue to fight for the liberation of all men. There will be times when each of us will have doubts. But I trust that neither of us will desert our great cause.

Shortly afterward, Rustin’s advocacy of the United States sending fighter jets to Israel strained relations with his old supporters in the War Resisters League. This tension between purity of spirit and practicality of purpose became the central theme of his final three decades, when his fame was greatest but respect for his achievements as a strategist and tactician began to wane. His legacy remains a political Rorschach test for those who would study how to change the world.

Editor Michael G. Long will speak at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, 800 St. Paul St., on April 18 at 7 P.M. For more information, visit redemmas.org.

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