everything America hated

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D'Emilio

It was mid-Twentieth-Century America. He was black. He was openly gay. In his early years he was a communist. He organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was a pacifist and the chief proponent of the philosophy of nonviolence in activism. He was Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor.

And today, it seems hardly anyone remembers him.

Bayard Rustin was everything America seemed to hate in those days.

He believed that “evil could only be combatted by good, never by tools or methods that were in themselves evil.”[1] Violence would only serve to generate more violence. Maintaining respect for one’s opponent left open the possibility of reconciliation.

“The discipline of nonviolence required that its advocates put aside the spontaneity of raging emotions in interest of measured ethical reflection.[2]

Rustin was an early proponent of these ideas and became their champion after a trip to India where he studied Ghandis nonviolent methods. It was he who was largely responsible for King’s well-known methods of nonviolent activism.

But history seems to have forgotten him. Even in his own time, he struggled to remain afloat amongst the tides of social rejection. He found himself many-a-time having to decide between his influence as one of the most important leaders advocating for equality in America and his identity as a homosexual man.

Rustin was a prominent representative of the civil rights movement and many of his fellow leaders felt that Bayard, by maintaining his sexual identity, was in danger of tainting and even discrediting the entire movement.

Escaping the feeling of needing to balance between these two was an impossible one to escape throughout most of his life.

It’s hard now to imagine that a man fighting for equality in one respect (racial identity) would not be accepted in the advocacy community because of his sexual identity.

This makes Rustins vociferous promotion of pacifism even more remarkable.

But here’s what I wonder. Rustin wrote:

You cannot take a stand for truth and justice without…causing some suffering… Basic social change involves a vast deal of physical violence. The pacifist is not a man who is afraid of violence nor in a sense opposed to it because often, social change cannot be made except under situations where violence is to a degree inevitable. The pacifist is opposed to using violence, but he must be prepared to accept it as a part of social change. [3]
— Bayard Rustin

I admire the sentiment of not using violence to effect change, but how can this be understood as anything other than an excuse to keep clean hands? If violence is essentially inevitable to create social change, then isn’t taking the pacifist position simply waiting for someone else to do the “dirty work”? If one is committed entirely to the work of creating change and violence is inherently part of that process, doesn’t the situation demand personal engagement in that violence?

I don’t advocate for violence but I’m also not sure how to sort through this. (Please comment below or send me a message if you have thoughts!)

Though he passed away in 1987, his legacy lives on, even if it’s not often attributed to the man himself. He truly is a lost prophet. In any case, Rustin has lessons yet to teach us today.

May this serve as an introduction to the man, but stay tuned for more down the road.

[1] Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, by John D’Emilio. Pg. 182.

[2] Ibid., pg. 450.

[3] Bayard Rustin to Beverly White, 5/3/1950, Fellowship of Reconciliation Papers, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, Series D, Box 1, Folder 5.

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