Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

June 13, 2021
Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin is one of the most important figures in thehistory of the American civil rights movement. Before Martin LutherKing, before Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin was working to bring thecause to the forefront of America's consciousness. A teacher toKing, an international apostle of peace, and the organizer of thefamous 1963 March on Washington, he brought Gandhi's philosophy ofnonviolence to America and helped launch the civil rights movement.Nonetheless, Rustin has been largely erased by history, in partbecause he was an African American homosexual. Acclaimed historianJohn D'Emilio tells the full and remarkable story of Rustin'sintertwined lives: his pioneering and public person and his obliqueand stigmatized private self.It was in the tumultuous 1930s that Bayard Rustin came of age,getting his first lessons in politics through the Communist Partyand the unrest of the Great Depression. A Quaker and a radicalpacifist, he went to prison for refusing to serve in World War II,only to suffer a sexual scandal. His mentor, the great pacifist A.J. Muste, wrote to him, "You were capable of making the 'mistake'of thinking that you could be the leader in a revolution...at thesame time that you were a weakling in an extreme degree and engagedin practices for which there was no justification."Freed from prison after the war, Rustin threw himself into theearly campaigns of the civil rights and anti-nuclear movementsuntil an arrest for sodomy nearly destroyed his career. Many closecolleagues and friends abandoned him. For years after, Rustinassumed a less public role even though his influence waseverywhere. Rustin mentored a young and inexperienced Martin LutherKing in the use of nonviolence. He planned strategy for theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference until Congressman AdamClayton Powell threatened to spread a rumor that King and Rustinwere lovers. Not until Rustin's crowning achievement as theorganizer of the 1963 March on Washington would he finally emergefrom the shadows that homophobia cast over his career. Rustinremained until his death in 1987 committed to the causes of worldpeace, racial equality, and economic justice.Based on more than a decade of archival research and interviewswith dozens of surviving friends and colleagues of Rustin's,Lost Prophet is a triumph. Rustin emerges as a hero of theblack freedom struggle and a singularly important figure in thelost gay history of the mid-twentieth century. John D'Emilio'scompelling narrative rescues a forgotten figure and brings alive atime of great hope and great tragedy in the not-so-distantpast.