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Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin is one of the most important social justice activists in mid-twentieth-century U.S. history. He was a critical figure in the movement for racial justice and equality. Before Martin Luther King, Jr., before Malcolm X, Rustin was working to bring the cause to the forefront of America’s consciousness. A teacher and mentor to Dr. King, an international advocate of peace, and the organizer of the iconic 1963 March on Washington, he was a key force in bringing Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance to America and making it a central feature of the civil rights movement. Yet, Rustin’s importance in both the civil rights movement and the international movement against the testing and spread of nuclear weapons remains largely unknown, in large part because he was an African American gay man during the era that can reasonably be described as the worst time to be queer.

It was in the tumultuous decade of the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that Rustin began his career as an activist, getting his first lessons in organizing through the Communist Party’s network of activists. A Quaker and a radical pacifist, he went to prison for refusing to serve in the military. After the war, working for pacifist organizations, he planned a bus ride through the South in 1947, challenging racial segregation. Arrested on sex charges in 1953, he continued his activism in the anti-nuclear and racial justice movements, but always working in the background to avoid public scandal. During the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, he established a close working relationship with Dr. King. He helped draw up the plans to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and strategized King’s emergence as a national leader. He organized and participated in international actions against the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. But word of his sexual identity continued to surface, and he and Dr. King felt compelled to maintain distance. Not until his resounding success as the chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington would he finally emerge from the shadows and have the freedom to be a publicly visible social justice activist.

Even with the neutralization of his homosexuality as a weapon used by his critics, Rustin still aroused controversy. In 1965, he wrote an article, “From Protest to Politics,” that urged progressive activists to move beyond a strategy simply of protest and to instead engage the political system directly. Otherwise, he argued, progressives would always remain outsiders, without the influence and the power to reshape laws, institutions, and public policies. To many of his colleagues on the left, this seemed a betrayal, and most rejected his call.

Rustin remained an activist on a variety of fronts until his death in 1987.