Monday, September 22, 2008

Bayard Rustin Book Review

In Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement, author Daniel Levine does an admirable job of describing a key figure in US history whose name is too often forgotten. The book is Levine’s response to the public’s lack of familiarity with Rustin beyond the occasional recognition of his importance as “some civil rights guy.” The text is equal parts sympathetic biography and informative history book, but it does an admirable job of introducing the uninitiated to one of the most influential men in the fight for civil rights.

In 1912, Rustin was born in Pennsylvania where his grandmother and grandfather raised him. The concepts of compassion and social justice were familiar to Rustin from day one, as his grandparents assisted African-American families migrating from the South. More directly, Rustin’s grandmother’s activities – NAACP member, creator of an integrated gardening club, and co-founder of a black children’s nursery, nurse’s association, and community center – clearly influenced his development as an activist. Moreover, it is important to recognize that as a child, many of Rustin’s neighborhood friends were white, and included several Jewish children. This may explain some of Rustin’s actions later in life, and particularly his strong support for the state of Israel.

Looking back on Rustin’s early life, the first instance where he engaged in nonviolent direct action (NVDA) to resist segregation was as a student athlete in an integrated high school. Rustin and one of his friends refused to compete in a race unless they were permitted to stay in the same hotel as their white teammates, which they were subsequently allowed to do. High school was also the time when Rustin began to consider the possibility that he was gay, although he asserts that he did not fully realize this until his college years. As a star student, athlete and musician, it seemed natural for Rustin to continue his studies at a City University in New York, but his overwhelming dedication to activism prevented him from committing to his studies and earning a traditional degree. Ironically, numerous universities later recognized Rustin for his activism by awarding him honorary degrees.

In 1936, Rustin joined the Society of Friends and became a peace activist the following summer, traveling around the country and speaking out against war. Shortly after, he also joined the Young Communist League (YCL) of City College, primarily a peace organization at the time. When the YCL told Rustin to abandon his work to end discrimination in the military, however, he left the group and became a harsh critic of communism. In search of new organizations to which he could dedicate his time, Rustin then found the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) lead by A. J. Muste who introduced him to NVDA, and the March on Washington (MOW) movement led by A. Phillip Randolph, who introduced Rustin to Gandhi’s work. Rustin’s exposure to Randolph’s leadership, as well as his experience as the youth director of MOW were both valuable in their ability to teach him the organizational and communication skills that he would utilize repeatedly as an activist for the remainder of his life, primarily working alongside Muste and Randolph. This period also marked the beginning of Rustin’s involvement with the two goals which he would spend years working on, dividing his time alternately pursuing international peace and an end to racism in the U.S.

Rustin’s self-assigned role as social activist was not an easy one, and he was subjected to physical violence and arrest on numerous occasions throughout his life. Imprisoned as a rebellious Conscientious Objector (CO) during WWII, for example, Rustin fought segregation in the prison by spending time on the top floor with white CO’s, which earned him a beating to which he refused to respond. Similarly, long before the Freedom Riders, Rustin was beaten by policemen and dragged from a bus for peacefully refusing to sanction an unjust law by moving to the back of a bus. Doubtlessly, Rustin’s work was made even more difficult because of his sexual orientation. After his arrest in California on a “morals charge,” Rustin’s identity as a homosexual was public knowledge and was used by his opponents, along with his brief support for communism, to discredit his work and to force him to hide behind leaders like Randolph as he continued to fight for civil rights. This, more than anything, may explain why Rustin is not as well known as other civil rights activists. Moreover, once Rustin faced the censure of fellow Quakers and Christians for being gay, religion began to fade in importance for Rustin.

Although his life was not without suffering, Rustin certainly had his share of successes. He organized the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 to fight segregation on inter-state bus travel. He traveled to India to learn about NVDA first-hand. He assisted the independence movement in what is today Ghana, organized the Youth March for Integrated Schools, repeatedly advised Martin Luther King, organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, co-organized the March on Washington in 1963, organized the New York School Boycott, worked with SNCC, CORE, and SCLC, and struggled with organized labor to open unions to minorities. A thorough list of all of Rustin’s accomplishments, some great and others small, would take pages to list.

However, it is important to note that while his goals remained relatively constant, the tools that Rustin used to achieve them evolved over time. Communism, Quakerism, and international pacifism diminished in importance to Rustin as he aged and began to embrace democratic politics as the best means to reaching the end of equality. Further, he emphasized the need to work with the federal government in assisting the poor – black and white – if racism and violence were to ever to be overcome. For these positions, and for his rejection of Black Nationalism and separatism, Rustin found himself becoming increasingly ignored as no longer relevant to the “black agenda” as time passed. During his final years, Rustin’s contributions to the causes of refugees, free and fair elections, and, to a certain extent, gay rights, were all but ignored by a nation that considered him “a grand old man” whose relevance did not extend beyond the mid-1960’s. Rustin died in 1987 from cardiac arrest; he was seventy-five.

In presenting his account of Rustin’s life, Levine succeeds more often than he fails. The book is clearly well researched, presents a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the civil rights movement, and incorporates brief glimpses of humor and personality into a discussion of Rustin that help portray him as human. Additionally, the reader cannot help but come away from the book with knowledge about other key civil rights activist beyond Rustin; much of the book is spent discussing figures like Randolph, Muste, King, and others. By mentioning uncomplimentary details like Rustin’s affected accent, his occasional arrogance, and his break with pacifism to support military aid to Israel, the author also gains credibility. Levine should be commended too for his inclusion of Rustin’s homosexuality – a topic that other authors have sought to ignore at the expense of providing a true and accurate depiction of Rustin’s life.

However, Levine’s work is not without flaws and his writing can at times be repetitive. His treatment of Rustin’s gay identity frequently seems self-conscious and awkward, referring to “Rustin’s indiscreet, almost defiant, homosexual activity” while first incarcerated, and including the strange note that “there was no homosexual incident” while Rustin worked on a chain gang, hypothesizing that he “was too exhausted for much besides work.” Levine would also have benefited by including his definition of pacifism in the book, as his assertions that Rustin was or was not a pacifist during certain parts of his life have little meaning otherwise. Certainly, more information about Rustin’s personal life would have added to the biography too, painting Rustin as a full human being as well as an accomplished activist.

After finishing Levine’s work, I was surprised by how attached I felt to Rustin despite the primarily historical tone of the biography. Somewhere along the way, I found myself rooting for Rustin, and saddened by his eventual removal from the “black agenda” and the national stage. Certainly, I would like to learn more about Rustin, perhaps by listening to his speeches or reading more personal accounts of his life. Ultimately, the biography opened my eyes to the realities of the civil rights movement in the U.S.: the compromises that had to be made, the conflicts and dissent among activists, the successes and the failures on nonviolent action, and the overwhelming amount of planning and strategy that went into every event, demonstration, and movement that Rustin planned. And while I walk away from the book knowing significantly more about Rustin and the civil rights struggle, I am more aware than ever about how much there is to learn.

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