Daniel Levine's biography Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement portrays the life of the complex and unique Bayard Rustin. Born in Pennsylvania in 1912, Bayard grew up in an environment that would prepare him for a life campaigning for pacifism, civil rights, and human rights, interacting with people of various backgrounds in personal, professional, and political arenas.
Rustin was raised by his grandmother, an early member of the NAACP, who instilled Quaker pacifism in Bayard and also exposed him to prominent black figures. Rustin attended an integrated high school where he excelled, and began to resist racial discrimination and to inspire other students, black and white, to do so as well. He also formed friendships with Jewish classmates and empathized with them. Rustin developed as a brilliant, confident, compassionate man with the ability and charisma to accomplish great things as a pacifist and civil rights supporter.
Rustin is best known as the organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, but he began his pursuit of social justice long before that, and the causes he advocated also included peace, gay rights (Rustin was homosexual), and combating poverty. In World War II, Rustin became involved in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an anti-war group. As a FOR member, he befriended Jay Holmes Smith, a supporter of Gandhi in India, and from him developed a deep understanding of non-violent direct action (NVDA). As a conscientious objector, he was imprisoned for refusing to comply with the draft in any way. In prison, he began working to desegregate black and white prisoners, applying the principles of NVDA for the first time in the US to challenge racial discrimination.
With the end of the war, Rustin's attention began its shift from the pacifist movement to the civil rights movement. Notably, he helped organize the Journey for Reconciliation in 1947, which would serve as the model for the Freedom Rides in 1961. In the 1950's, Rustin became acquainted with Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he exposed to NVDA. Rustin inspired King to utilize NVDA as the most effective tool in the Civil Rights Movement. When King became the major figure of the movement, Rustin advised him. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph organized the March on Washington, the most momentous event of the movement.
Rustin sought not only to stage protests, but to effect change. This led him to his close involvement with the Democrats in the 1960's, as the Johnson administration achieved passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Rustin would not renounce Johnson and therefore would not demand an immediate end to the Vietnam War, in a break from his pacifist past. Throughout his life, Rustin maintained close ties to the Jewish community and supported Israel's right to exist, eventually calling for US arms support for Israel. In his later years, Rustin worked for an end to American poverty and for human rights world wide, but he was no longer a pacifist. Still, until his death in 1987, Rustin remained committed to a vision of greater social justice.
In Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement, Levine portrays many contradictions of Rustin's eccentric personality. Yet, he does not reconcile these contradictions and does not sufficiently elaborate on how these eccentricities may have been detrimental to Rustin, other than to say that his homosexuality damaged his image and led him to resign from organizations more than once. He portrays a man who foolishly believes he is "omnicompetent" but then contradictorily says Rustin was "lacking self-importance." Also, Levine does not challenge Rustin's almost unequivocal support for Israel. Rustin's friends were mostly Jewish, which must have influenced his decision to call for arms support for Israel, rather than to campaign for the Palestinian refugees. Addressing such contradictions would have provided a fuller depiction of Bayard Rustin.
Overall, Levine's biography is an excellent introduction to Bayard Rustin, conveying many aspects of both his public and private life. Levine explains how and why Rustin was an effective leader as a man with clear objectives and logical actions. Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement highlights the life works of Rustin, and in doing so justifies Rustin as an important figure on his own, and not merely in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr., as he is often portrayed. While Levine is certainly a champion of Rustin's, he does not glorify him so much as to be unaware of Rustin's shortcomings, addressing Rustin's personal failures and the ineffectuality of some of his projects. In the end, these shortcomings are greatly overshadowed by Rustin's successes.
After reading Levine's biography, I have developed a great appreciation for Bayard Rustin as an ethical, rational, brilliant, and charismatic man. I hope to develop a greater knowledge of Rustin, to learn more about his organizations and to hear recordings of his speeches. Daniel Levine's work was an excellent book for an introduction to such a dynamic, fascinating, and important man.