In 1912, Rustin was born in
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
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
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
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
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
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