The Civil Rights Identity of Bayard Rustin

Article excerpt

Introduction

Boyard Rustin was the consummate civil rights strategist and humanitarian.1 Indeed, he shaped the course of social protest for some thirty years.2 First as political adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. and later as leader of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin influenced the black protest agenda in ways that few activists had before him or would even after his death.3 For example, Rustin helped to integrate nonviolent direct action into the civil rights movement, and if he were remembered for nothing more than this, his reputation would be enshrined in African-American protest and legal history.4 But he was also well-placed among the powerbrokers of organized labor,5 the American Democratic Party,6 and world affairs.7 Few African Americans engaged in as broad a protest agenda as did Rustin; even fewer enjoyed his breadth of influence in virtually every political sector of American life.

Nevertheless, Rustin remained the quintessential outsider in black civil rights circles for much of his life.8 For, unlike nearly all of his peers, Rustin was gay.9 This created a seemingly unprecedented conundrum for African-American leaders, who balanced the value of Rustin's tactical expertise and political sophistication against his "deviant" sexual identity.10 Sometimes his expertise and sophistication tipped the scale, providing him with political autonomy to determine the trajectory of black civil rights.11 Other times, however, Rustin's gay identity outweighed his political savoir faire. In these instances, black civil rights leaders pointedly dismissed him, demanded his resignation from service, or denied him the institutional space to even articulate a civil rights vision.12

Perhaps no other figure contributed so much to the cause of African-American equality and remains so invisible in history.13 Indeed, to the extent that civil rights historians attend to Rustin at all, they present him as a "sideline activist" whose principle purpose was to support King.14 In truth, this image of Rustin is not completely inconsistent with Rustin's self-representation. Rustin's own writings reflect an outward-looking authorial point of view, as if seeking to deflect attention away from himself and from his contributions to civil rights reform.15 This might lead one to conclude that Rustin preferred, and actively sought out, a background political identity. In fact, however, Rustin's obfuscation of his role in shaping the black civil rights agenda was an important part of an identity-management strategy.16 The purpose of this strategy was to control the potential negative impact Rustin's sexual orientation could have on the civil rights movement. Informing the strategy was Rustin's awareness that the more visible and prominent his leadership roles in the black community, the more vulnerable the black civil rights establishment was to the charge that black reform efforts were being conceived of and orchestrated by a "sexual deviant."17 Consequently, Rustin performed his most significant and controversial civil rights work from the backrooms rather than from the forefront of the movement. How he did so is largely untold in American civil rights and legal history.18 While there are numerous law review articles on the civil rights movement generally and on Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically,19 there is not a single article that focuses squarely on Rustin;20 this is the first. The lack of attention to Rustin's life and civil rights contributions not only limits and distorts our understanding of the civil rights movement, but it legitimizes the (heterosexual) terms upon which Rustin was forced to perform civil rights. This Article exposes those terms and illustrates how Rustin negotiated them in order to articulate a remarkably broad and inclusive vision of equality.

This Article takes the form of a civil rights biography. Our aim is not only to broaden our understanding of Rustin, of pivotal civil rights events (such as the March on Washington), and of central icons of the American civil rights movement (such as Martin Luther King, Jr. …