The Prophet Gone Astray

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

Peter Drucker

Lost Prophet:
The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.
by John D’Emilio
New York: Free Press, 2003, $20.

THE HISTORY OF African-Americans’ long struggle for equality in the United States is full of unsung heroes, few of whom have been so unjustly neglected as Bayard Rustin. Particularly in the crucial years from the 1940s to the 1960s there was virtually no act or scene of the civil rights drama, or for that matter of the peace movement, in which Rustin did not play a major role — mostly behind the scenes.

Historian John D’Emilio undertook a worthy task with his biography Lost Prophet in trying to get Rustin the recognition he deserves. He has succeeded in making unmistakably clear just how important Rustin was. He has also done a service to the radical left in demonstrating how Rustin’s contributions were decisive specifically because of his grassroots organizing, his courage and skill in staging direct action, and his ability to inspire thousands of people to join in big mobilizations.

D’Emilio shows how one civil rights victory after another was due to Rustin’s unjustly forgotten activism. Lost Prophet also gives a convincing account of why so many of Rustin’s contributions have been forgotten, in large part because he was gay — his desire for other men, an open secret and essential part of who he was, was an embarrassment to almost all leaders of the civil rights and peace movements.

D’Emilio has not succeeded equally well in every part of his undertaking. Where D’Emilio falters is in his account of Rustin’s later years, beginning in the mid-1960s, when Rustin turned to the right and found himself shunted off to the margins of African-American and antiwar activism.

Understandably, D’Emilio as a biographer tries hard to understand and empathize with Rustin’s motives. Unfortunately, he comes to identify Rustin’s rightward turn of the mid-1960s with positions he took himself in the lesbian/gay movement by the early 1990s. As a result he ends up presenting Rustin’s move “from protest to politics,” if not wholly uncritically, then as virtually the only feasible course open to Rustin at the time.

In doing so D’Emilio fails to explore several other, more honorable political roads that Rustin could just as well have traveled by, and fails to illuminate some significant factors in the choice Rustin did make.

Forgotten Mobilizations

Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, ending racial job segregation in military industry, only under the threat from Black trade union leader A. Philip Randolph to organize a national March on Washington if the demand was not met. The March on Washington Movement that emerged from the aborted march provided the first occasion for Rustin to work with Randolph.

Rustin mastered the skills needed to organize direct action and saw the evidence of its power extraordinarily quickly. How effectively he used those skills over the following two decades in several different causes is far too little known.

Historians have told the story for example of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s speech in favor of civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention, the civil rights plank that the convention adopted, and Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces soon afterward.

Few of them have focused on the presence of pickets organized by Rustin outside the convention center — Humphrey came out briefly to join the picket line, and Rustin seized the chance to urge Humphrey to speak up on civil rights on the convention floor — or the impact of Randolph and Rustin’s threat to organize Black draft resistance in spurring Truman to action. (154-57)

Decolonization of most of Black Africa appears in most historians’ account as a relatively smooth, peaceful process. Rustin’s role in aiding Nigerian leader Nnamdi Azikiwe and Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda in organizing nonviolent direct action that sped decolonization is missing from most accounts.

Historians regard the long-drawn-out and turbulent struggle to end formal white supremacy in Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) and South Africa as exceptions to the peaceful pattern. Yet if not for the movement Rustin helped organize, who knows if Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia) would have followed Southern Rhodesia’s path (in 1965) to a “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” and white minority rule?

The 1963 March on Washington has come down in tradition as a virtual lovefest, in which virtually the whole nation (except a few diehard Southern racists) joined a united civil rights movement in ensuring the triumph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

D’Emilio shows how unprecedented the March was when Rustin began pushing the idea; how it was prepared by earlier actions in the previous few years that Rustin organized in relative isolation; with what difficulty the NAACP and Urban League were pressured into joining in; and how Rustin fought to keep the march’s emphasis on Jobs (economic justice) as well as Freedom (civil rights legislation).

In fact Rustin did not see peace, economic justice, African independence and African-American freedom in those years as existing in watertight compartments, but as part of one big struggle.

A Brilliant Embarrassment

The 1963 March was a turning point for Rustin. Ever since his 1953 arrest and conviction in Pasadena for having sex with two men in a parked car, Rustin had been repeatedly purged, sidelined or kept under wraps in peace and civil rights organizing.

D’Emilio does a great job of showing how Rustin’s sexuality was used against him again and again, including by people in the movement who admitted he was a brilliant organizer and who should have known better but almost never did.

By all accounts a handsome, charismatic man who attracted women as well as men and enjoyed doing so, the repeated blows made Rustin increasingly frustrated over the years, to the point that he tormented himself because of his inability to change.

At this distance in time the indignities to which Rustin was subjected are hard to believe. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., for example, succeeded in making King provoke Rustin’s resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960 by threatening to spread the word that King and Rustin were having an affair. (298-99)

Rustin’s triumph in 1963, when Senator Strom Thurmond read an account of the Pasadena arrest into the Congressional Record and civil rights leaders responded by affirming their “great confidence in Bayard’s moral integrity,” had to be all the sweeter. (348-49)

D’Emilio’s background as an important lesbian/gay historian(1) equips him well to describe both the prejudice Rustin had to contend with and the heartache it involved for him. This makes it all the more surprising that D’Emilio occasionally seems to endorse the sexphobic censure that Rustin’s contemporaries inflicted on him.

Minister and pacifist leader A.J. Muste, for example, fired Rustin from his job at the Fellowship of Reconciliation after the Pasadena arrest, and berated Rustin harshly during World War II when Rustin was caught having sex with a fellow prisoner at the federal penitentiary where he had been jailed for draft resistance.

Without condemning homosexuality as such, Muste said that Rustin had been “a weakling in an extreme degree” and been guilty of “gross misconduct” (102) — and D’Emilio concurs that Rustin “had demonstrated an alarming lapse of integrity and judgment” in “choosing quick physical pleasure.” (101)

Admittedly complete abstinence from sex throughout his prison years might have been a more prudent course of action for Rustin. But how can a veteran of the 1970s struggles for sexual liberation like D’Emilio reprove Rustin for having consensual sex?

The Rest of the Story

Furstin’s turn toward moderation did not come all at once. In retrospect his role in cutting John Lewis’ fiery speech at the 1963 March was a harbinger, but at the time not many people held it against him.

His role in the 1964 “compromise” that kept an all-white Mississippi delegation seated at the Democratic convention, by contrast, elicited charges of betrayal that never went away, contributing to the turn by his former friends in SNCC to Black Power.

A key turning point, as D’Emilio recognizes, was the job Rustin got in 1965 as director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which made him dependent on the funding and good graces of George Meany’s AFL- CIO bureaucracy. Rustin’s refusal from then on to call for unconditional U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam completely alienated his former pacifist friends, for example at the War Resisters League and the magazine Liberation.

D’Emilio mounts as strong a defense for Rustin as anyone on the left could. His citations from Lyndon Johnson’s speeches help readers understand how Rustin could place high hopes in constructive engagement with the Johnson Administration. What European social democrat today, let alone a leading U.S. Democrat, would call for “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result,” as Johnson did in 1965? (417)

D’Emilio is also right to insist, along with Rustin, that the very strength of the civil rights movement by the mid-1960s made a shift “From Protest to Politics” (as Rustin entitled his famous 1965 article in Commentary) imperative.

Even if Black Power exponents’ charges of betrayal by liberal Democrats were totally justified, their rhetorical grandstanding was often a poor substitute for concrete organizing and strategizing to link oppressed African Americans with a broader movement of workers, women and others for social transformation.

D’Emilio never makes any significant argument, however, let alone a convincing case for his tacit assumption that the only feasible form of “politics” in the 1960s was an alliance with the AFL-CIO-linked mainstream of the Democratic Party.

D’Emilio could perhaps justify ignoring a leftist attempt like the 1968 Peace and Freedom Party to weld Black Power, antiwar organizing and socialism into a serious political alternative to the Democratic Party, given Peace and Freedom’s lack of any substantial base in labor. But he fails even to discuss the effort made in those same years to win the Democratic Party to a “New Politics” of peace and justice.

This “New Politics” trend was never a break from the Democratic Party for an independent alternative (as a magazine like Against the Current stands for). But it not only existed in those years, it made headlines with Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy’s 1968 primary challenges, and even briefly captured the Democratic Party in 1972.

What’s more, it had a labor base in Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers. Reuther had done substantially more to fund civil rights than Meany had, and would probably have been as willing as Meany to guarantee Rustin some sort of secure job. Yet Rustin was a consistent opponent of “New Politics.”

D’Emilio’s explanation — that Rustin had gotten “tired after a while” and saw the Randolph Institute as “something comfortable and something you can count on” (448) — thus does not quite explain Rustin’s evolution to right-wing social democracy.

SP Factions

The explanation should have been sought, I suspect, in Rustin’s political convictions and his involvement with the bitterly contending factions of the Socialist Party.

D’Emilio did set out at one point to explore these factors. In an essay written before The Lost Prophet D’Emilio made clear that he had been told about Rustin’s connections to the Socialist Party right wing that Shachtman led (today Social Democrats USA).(2) Yet curiously, in the biography itself D’Emilio tends to turn away from the subject, almost abruptly, whenever he comes near it.

The Lost Prophet does describe Rustin’s sexual relationship with Tom Kahn, a young follower of Max Shachtman who would later rise to be international affairs director of the AFL-CIO, as “an intimacy with someone who shared (Rustin’s) political commitments” (278), and acknowledges that Kahn had a big political influence on Rustin even after their sexual relationship faded away.(3)

But D’Emilio fails to mention Rustin’s visits to Shachtman’s Long Island home and his long telephone conference calls with Shachtman and his cronies.(4) Nor does he cite the 1970 article that Rustin and Shachtman co-authored in the Socialist Party paper New America, a direct attack on the “New Politics” and an unashamed defense of the Meany leadership.(5)

These odd gaps in D’Emilio’s account make it hard to judge whether Rustin’s advocacy of a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, as opposed to unconditional U.S. withdrawal, was a pragmatic expression of his lifelong pacifism, as D’Emilio suggests (442-43), or whether he had traded in his pacifism entirely for Shachtman’s all-consuming, distorting brand of anti-Stalinism.

Rustin’s consistent support for Israel, which as D’Emilio notes continued for the rest of his life, is hard to square with D’Emilio’s explanation. More likely Rustin was won over by an argument of Shachtman’s like the one Michael Harrington recalled from a 1966 discussion in a community room in Rustin’s apartment building: that while “the war is horrible and the killing should be stopped as soon as possible,” socialists needed to rely on U.S. power as a “shield behind which the democratic revolution could organize itself.”(6)

Gays and Democrats

The key to the political silences in Lost Prophet can perhaps be found in D’Emilio’s own political evolution, charted in his collection of essays The World Turned. By his own account he was a more radical gay activist in the 1970s. His groundbreaking article “Capitalism and Gay Identity” may still be the single most important attempt ever made to lay the foundation for a Marxist analysis of lesbian/gay identity.(7)

The thread of class analysis is still present in his later writings. But politically D’Emilio became more moderate in later years. By 1992-93, when Bill Clinton first won over many lesbian/gay activists by promising lesbian/gay rights in the military and then enraged many by welshing on his promise, D’Emilio first argued that Clinton was offering gays “an alternative to outsider status,” then expressed concern that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force under left-leaning director Urvashi Vaid “seemed to equate marginality and outsider status as values in themselves.”(8)

He himself suggests that this discussion increased his understanding for Bayard Rustin’s relationship to the Democratic Party decades earlier.(9)

But the political weakness of the biography’s last chapters does not detract from its great merits. Well written, well researched and full of fascinating information, Lost Prophet is a must-read for African-American, LGBT and peace activists.


  1. See e.g. his Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

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  2. John D’Emilio, The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, 245.
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  3. D’Emilio did not interview Kahn, who died aged 53 of AIDS in 1992, for Lost Prophet. Unfortunately he apparently did not know about the extraordinarily illuminating interview I did with Kahn in 1989, which was available for consultation in New York University’s Tamiment Library.
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  4. Interview with Michael Harrington by Friend and Hacker (19 Aug. 1988), s 1, cited in Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey through the “American Century,” Highland Park NJ: Humanities Press, 1994, 269.
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  5. Rustin and Shachtman, “Organized labor and coalition politics,” New America vol. 10 no. 20 (30 Sept. 1972), 2, cited in Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left, 298. The few references there are to Shachtman in The Lost Prophet are harder to find due to the misspelling of Shachtman’s name in the book’s index. (561)
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  6. Michael Harrington, Fragments of the Century, New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973, 201. Today many (ex-)leftists use much the same argument to oppose immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
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  7. John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and gay identity,” in Ann Snitow et al. (eds.), Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983.
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  8. The World Turned, 139, 103. For Vaid’s own valuable account of her NGLTF years, see Urvashi Vaid, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, New York: Anchor Books, 1995. I should perhaps disclose a potential source of bias: Vaid wrote a generous blurb for the anthology Different Rainbows, which I edited.
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  9. The World Turned, 233-34, 243-44, 247-48.
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ATC 114, January-February 2005