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Civil Rights Hero By: Joshua Muravchik
OpinionJournal.com | Monday, January 20, 2003


Martin Luther King's birthday was made a national holiday to honor not only a great individual but also the movement he personified. King's peerless oratorical gifts stirred the courage of blacks and pierced the conscience of whites. He was, however, not the movement's only leader. Just as the American Revolution owed its success to a rare confluence of great figures--Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin--so the triumph of the civil-rights revolution can be traced to the syncretism of a handful of extraordinary black leaders, another group of "founding brothers," as the authors of American independence have been called. In addition to King, they were labor leader A. Philip Randolph, NAACP chief Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, who led the Congress of Racial Equality, and Bayard Rustin, the movement's master tactician. Not a single black leader since has approached their stature.

PBS has aptly chosen Martin Luther King Day (Monday) to broadcast a marvelous 90-minute documentary on Rustin, "Brother Outsider." This film adds to other Rustin-inspired works that have appeared since his death in 1987, in particular a stage play, "Civil Sex," written and first produced in 1997, and a print biography, "Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen" by Jervis Anderson (also 1997). Together they express a renewed interest, long overdue, in a man who was undoubtedly the most fascinating personality among the constellation of top civil-rights leaders. 

Born in 1912, Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pa., less than 30 miles from the Liberty Bell but not beyond the reach of Jim Crow. Persons of color could attend this mostly white town's movie theater only by ascending a back stairway to a restricted balcony. No restaurant would serve them. Bayard (pronounced BUY-erd) developed a reputation early as something of a troublemaker for his defiance of such racial restrictions.

His brazenness extended to other realms as well, for he made little effort to hide the fact that he preferred boys to girls. He may have gotten away with more than others thanks to his many gifts. Charming, well-spoken, strikingly handsome, he won various academic honors, ran track and played football on the high-school team, and possessed a musical talent that enabled him to make his living for a time singing with the likes of Josh White, then the country's best-known black folk musician.

In his 20s, Rustin joined the Young Communist League but soon became disillusioned and found his way instead to the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation--a return to the values of his Quaker upbringing. He spent three years of World War II in jail as a conscientious objector, and after the war he pioneered the application of Gandhian techniques of nonviolent protest to the issue of racial discrimination in America (even traveling to India to study the method first-hand).

In 1942, two decades before heroic freedom riders catapulted the civil-rights question to the top of the national agenda, a preternaturally fearless Rustin staged a kind of one-man freedom ride in Tennessee, refusing a command to move to the back of the bus. Handled roughly by the police, he proclaimed coolly between blows: "You don't need to beat me; I am not resisting." Five years after that, he was again arrested over bus seating, this time with a small team of pacifist colleagues in North Carolina. Condemned to a chain gang, he dispatched hair-raising accounts to the New York Post of this form of penal servitude, which led directly to its abolition in North Carolina.

In 1955, blacks staged their first mass civil-rights protest, a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Ala., propelling the leader, 25-year-old Martin Luther King, to national prominence. Rustin, then 43 and with a lifetime of activism already under his belt, provided the tactical guidance and tutored King in the philosophy of nonviolence. In 1963, when the civil-rights struggle climaxed in the famous March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, it was Rustin who ran the show.

Belying the importance of his role, Rustin always remained a little to the side of the limelight. The reason for this was primarily his homosexuality, which had become a public issue after his conviction in 1953 in California for "lewd vagrancy" in the back seat of an automobile. Strom Thurmond took to the Senate floor in 1963 to expose the march's organizer as a "sex pervert."

At a time when homosexuality had yet to achieve anything like the tolerance it enjoys today, this attack worried Rustin's colleagues. They saw his lifestyle, underscored by the criminal record, as a liability for the movement. Thus Rustin ran the march while holding the title "deputy director," a deliberate understatement of his real responsibilities.

There was a further reason why Rustin's pivotal role in the civil-rights struggle was played down in historical memory. He recognized sooner than any other black leader that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 meant that the battle against Jim Crow had been won. He also realized that the end of segregation and the enforcement of anti-discrimination law would not automatically yield the egalitarian society of King's "dream." This impelled him on a quest for political strategies serving black uplift. The same reality led others toward more radical approaches--violence, separatism, black nationalism. To Rustin, these were nothing but a "psychological purgative," and he fought them with the same fearlessness with which he had fought Jim Crow. In return, the radicals called Rustin a sell-out and a "fag."

Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, the directors of "Brother Outsider," and Sam Pollard, its executive producer, have captured all this brilliantly in footage of Rustin speaking and marching at innumerable demonstrations, debating with Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (the man who coined the term "black power"), reveling at the "Nixon's enemies list" gala, and even, in a grainy old clip, tackling on the high-school gridiron.

This archival material is judiciously interwoven with interviews with an array of black and white comrades-in-arms, disciples, relatives and lovers. Its emotional force is strengthened by brilliant background music--spirituals and civil-rights songs, many sung by Rustin himself in his trademark sweet tenor. It adds up to a worthy tribute and to a powerful retelling of the civil-rights story, which gains a new freshness seen through the medium of this one special man.

Ironically, the homosexuality that so dogged Rustin's career has proved the instrument of his resurrection. Although he spurned the other New Left causes of the 1960s and 1970s--becoming the spokesman for the fiercely anticommunist group Social Democrats, USA--he embraced the gay-rights movement late in life. In turn, that movement has given Rustin a new, posthumous constituency that has fueled the revival of interest in his life and work. A poor, fatherless, black, gay profile in courage--and a man who helped reshape America--makes an irresistible hero for the gay movement. And for us all. "Brother Outsider" does him justice.

Mr. Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism" (Encounter).




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