Bayard Rustin lived his life on a continual mission to bring justice to the places he believed it was needed most. Best known for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin drew heavily on the teachings of peace and pacifism to lead a life of change. In his newly-released book “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.,” Michael G. Long has assembled Rustin’s firsthand accounts on his life, including Rustin’s resistance to the draft during World War II and to the perils Rustin faced living as an outwardly gay man.
Long, who will be at Busboys and Poets on April 16 to discuss the book, talked with The RootDC about the complicated relationship that Rustin had with Martin Luther King, what empowered Rustin to live so boldly and how his actions paved the way for the leaders of the 21st century.
You’ve written about the lives of Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson — what was it about Bayard Rustin that compelled you to work on this book?
Bayard Rustin is so colorful. And he’s so compelling for me. Partly because he brings together so many interesting movements in America. And he also brings together in one person so many of my own personal interests. And, for me, this is a guy who brings together gay rights, civil and human rights, nonviolence, socialism and pacifism, and I find that so compelling, because there in one person is everything that I’m interested in. He’s a progressive personality with a capital P — no doubt about it. Plus, if you ever hear him speak or you read the letters, it’s impossible not to like the guy. He’s incredibly likable.
The book celebrates the lost art of letter writing, which Rustin engaged in extensively.
He did. Bayard couldn’t type, but he wrote out a lot of letters by longhand using a blue ink pen with a nice loopy style where you can see some of his personality come through. And then he would ask people to type them for him, and then he eventually moved into dictation, and dictated a lot of letters as well.
In the book, Rustin’s letters highlight his relationship with Martin Luther King, which can be seen as distant at it worst, and revered at its best.
In many ways, Bayard served as a mentor to King, and he really
schooled King in Gandhi and nonviolence, and he built national platforms for King, introducing the key leaders across the country. Nevertheless, there was this tension between him and King, and part of the tension settled on Bayard’s gay sexuality. There’s no doubt about that.
In 1960, Martin Luther King cut Rustin out of his inner circle after Adam Clayton Powell threatened to tell the media that he — Dr. King and Bayard — were having a gay affair. There was no truth to that — it was an empty threat. But King was really scared silly. He was not a profile of courage in 1960, and given that threat, however empty it was, decided to cut Bayard out of the inner circle, and Bayard was absolutely crushed by that.
But by 1963 King reintegrates Bayard. And I understand why he did that — Bayard once said that Dr. King could not organize a couple of vampires to go to a bloodbath, and Bayard could. Bayard was tactically brilliant, and King knew that. Bayard was also a visionary and King knew that as well. He desperately needed Bayard and reintegrated him, and from there he launched the [March on Washington].
What do you think allowed for Rustin to have such insight about life and justice? It seems that he was ahead of his time on so many different levels; partly because he just didn’t care what others thought — and it’s so evident in his letters.
I think his insight is grounded in his identity. This is a guy who is African American, socialist, a pacifist and openly gay. And he, because of his identity, knew the various levels of prejudice and how they interacted with one another in ways that other people just could not grasp. And I think his insight and his call for a broad-based coalition of politics is really rooted in his identity with all those different levels and facets.
He was concerned that his 1953 arrest in California and his gay sexuality would negatively affect the movement at some point. He was deeply concerned about that. But on the other hand, he had been through the fire so many times and survived, that he called upon his colleagues to have a strong backbone and to stand up straight and take these issues head-on and to let him do his work, for God’s sake.
It’s somewhat amusing how he simply tried to apply general logic to the trials that he faced, combined with the experiences and stories from others. It seems that he just really tried to rely on common sense in a time where other people just could not grasp that.
He was a political beast. He was a political animal to his core, but he was also a spiritual figure in many ways, and he was deeply inspired by the story of the prodigal son — that young man who squanders his father’s wealth and hangs out with the pigs and then says I will rise again. And Bayard took that story very seriously — especially when he was in prison. And I think he returned to that story time and again in his life, and a lot of his resilience is tied to that.
How have his actions made an impact on the political and cultural spectrum of the 21st century?
I think that Bayard is a transitional figure in many ways. In fact, he created the transition from protest to politics. This is the vision that he encouraged others to take up. By the mid-1960s . . . he’s calling for his fellow radicals to move from the streets and the marches and the rallies to building coalitions with key Democratic leaders.
Not the Dixiecrats, but the key Democratic leaders who can win rights and injustice for African Americans. He’s calling for this transition from protest to politics by the mid-1960s, and his fellow radicals criticize him for this. They don’t take it up, and hence they’re still alienated in American politics.
But because of that transition, I think he made it possible for key African Americans to move into politics. I see, for example, [Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton] as part of Bayard’s legacy. I see Rev. Al Sharpton as part of Bayard’s legacy. And I see President Obama as part of Bayard’s legacy in that call for moving from protest to politics.
What letter do you feel expresses Rustin’s spirit the most, and what image of him do you want readers to grasp while they are reading his letters?
I think that my favorite letter (p. 361) recounts the times that he has been knocked down for his fight against racism in the United States. By 1969, he had been in prison 23 times, serving 28 months in a federal penitentiary, 30 days on the NC chain gang. And he goes on to say in this letter:
“My best friends . . . have been beaten and assassinated. Yet, to remain human and to fulfil my commitment to a just society, I must continue to fight for the liberation of all men.”
For me that’s the most profound letter in the book because it gets to the spiritual resilience that’s at the core of Bayard’s life. It shows that no matter how many times he was knocked down, no matter how many of his friends had been beaten, he was going to get up and fight the good fight for a just society for all.
Bayard went from issue to issue to issue, and he tired himself out, but no matter how tired he was, he kept coming back. I find that deeply inspiring.
Long will appear in the Langston Room at Busboys and Poets on 14th and V at 6:30 p.m. on April 16.
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