Sympathetic, probing biography brings homosexuality to the fore as a factor in the black activist’s seminal but largely forgotten role in the civil-rights movement.
Rustin’s sexual orientation was impediment enough in the 1930s, contends D’Emilio (History and Gender Studies/Univ. of Illinois, Chicago), who has written extensively on the evolution of gay culture and politics. But Rustin (1912-87) built a dossier with many other components later antagonists (including Senators Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond) happily used against him. He had a youthful flirtation with the Communist Party, though he left it disillusioned, and his pacifist Quaker upbringing in Pennsylvania led him to resist the draft and receive a three-year prison sentence in 1944. D’Emilio builds an intimate history of his subject’s early struggles against racism, showing how Rustin’s achievements through skill and force of personality were often threatened and sometimes scuttled by lapses in sexual discretion at a time when gays were open at their peril. His nonviolent precepts were key to the formation SCLC and CORE, but his 1953 arrest for indecency made him a pariah even to those who had come to depend on his talent. Rustin took years to work his way back to the forefront, only to attract in 1960 the envy of grandstanding Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who threatened to go public with information (later debunked) that Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King had been homosexual partners. The cowed King allowed Rustin to resign as his assistant, but two years later he was back as the prime organizer for the massively effective 1963 March on Washington. Although he later told an interviewer that King “did not have the ability to organize vampires to go to a bloodbath,” Rustin never took personal credit for the March, D’Emilio states; up to his death, at age 75, he always claimed that the nationally televised white violence in Birmingham, Alabama, was the crucial factor in bringing demonstrators to Washington.
Eye-opening look at the personal ordeal underlying a revolutionary quest.