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New Books Highlight Life of Black, Gay Pioneer Bayard Rustin
by Cleve Adkins
2003-09-01

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As the Aug. 28 anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington approached and historians recount the story of this important civil-rights milestone, it is fitting that two recently published books focus on the man who made it happen—Bayard Rustin.

In Lost Prophet: the Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Free Press, $35) by John D'Emilio, the author presents a picture of the challenging and personal ordeal of a true revolutionary. For while Rustin is recognized as the skilled organizer of the March on Washington, his work and life were often shrouded in controversy because he was also a pacifist and a homosexual in a time when war, terrorism and prejudice were the mainstays of our world.

But Rustin, even in the face of incarceration and physical abuse, refused to compromise his position and until his death in August 1987, he continued to battle against all forms of militarism, racial hatred and homophobia.

As the author illustrates through 10 years of careful research, Rustin was always an outcast—a Black gay Quaker from Pennsylvania who affirmed his sexuality long before it was popular or safe to be 'out of the closet.' He withstood attacks by the FBI, southern segregationists, anticommunists and even leaders of the Black religious community like New York Congressman and pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell.

Emilio asserts that Rustin's life rests on the premise that ordinary people can make a difference in our world and that even the most antagonistic human relationships can be transformed. In fact, long before there was any mention of economic justice or globalization, Rustin, according to the author, was lecturing and writing about the destructive potential of nationalism in the development of human affairs and the pending death of democracy.

Rustin remains a figure whose life has been ignored for far too long. What makes this fact even more tragic is the reason behind his purposeful elimination from the history books—his sexual orientation. Thus it is even more remarkable that despite forces both within and outside of the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin, in just seven weeks' time, successfully orchestrated what remains the largest public protest action in America's history, bringing 250,000 to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Emilio, a professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a leading historian of sexuality in the U.S. and continues to write extensively on gay history and the politics of sexuality in 20th century America. He is also the founding director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute—a think-tank and research organization focused on issues of sexuality and public policy.

'Time on Two Crosses'—

Works from the Pen of Rustin

For readers who want a first-hand look at the writings of Bayard Rustin, a second recently published book, edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise, offers a comprehensive collection from the desk of this strategist of nonviolent resistance.

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin ($16.96, Cleis Press) is a testament to the career of one of America's first leaders in the battle for civil and gay rights, and includes 48 essays on topics ranging from Gandhi's impact on African Americans to the assassination of Malcolm X, never-before published works on the need for gay rights, affirmative action, AIDS and women's rights.

The text also includes 20 photographs that chronicle the life of Rustin, from his college days in the early 1930s to his later days as a recognized international leader of social protest. Six sections facilitate a topical analysis of Rustin's essays: The Making of a Movement, The Politics of Protest, African-American Leadership, Equality Beyond Race, Gay Rights and Equality Beyond America.

And until now, his voice, or rather his words, has for the most part remained lost and rarely appreciated by the vast majority of Americans because of his homosexuality. As the editors state in the introduction, 'sometimes his expertise and sophistication won out. At other times, the perceived political cost of his homosexuality outweighed his value to the [Civil Rights M]ovement. In these instances, he was dismissed, asked to resign from service, or denied a platform to voice his concerns.'

Both books should be added to the libraries of anyone concerned about the continuing elusive search for 'truth and justice' in these United States and in the world.


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