1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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In Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement, author Daniel Levine does an admirable job of describing a key figure in US history whose name is too often forgotten. The book is Levine's response to the public's lack of familiarity with Rustin beyond the occasional recognition of his importance as "some civil rights guy." The text is equal parts sympathetic biography and informative history book, but it does an admirable job of introducing the uninitiated to one of the most influential men in the fight for civil rights.
In 1912, Rustin was born in Pennsylvania where his grandmother and grandfather raised him. Rustin's grandmother's activities - NAACP member, creator of an integrated gardening club, and co-founder of a black children's nursery, nurse's association, and community center - clearly influenced his development as an activist. Looking back on Rustin's early life, the first instance where he engaged in nonviolent direct action (NVDA) to resist segregation was as a student athlete in an integrated high school. Rustin and one of his friends refused to compete in a race unless they were permitted to stay in the same hotel as their white teammates, which they were subsequently allowed to do. High school was also the time when Rustin began to consider the possibility that he was gay, although he asserts that he did not fully realize this until his college years.
In 1936, Rustin joined the Society of Friends and became a peace activist the following summer, traveling around the country and speaking out against war. Rustin later joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and the March on Washington (MOW) movement led by A. Phillip Randolph, who introduced Rustin to Gandhi's work. This period also marked the beginning of Rustin's involvement with the two goals which he would spend years working on, dividing his time alternately pursuing international peace and an end to racism in the U.S.
Unfortunately, Rustin was subjected to physical violence and arrest on numerous occasions throughout his life. Long before the Freedom Riders, Rustin was beaten by policemen and dragged from a bus for peacefully refusing to sanction an unjust law by moving to the back of a bus. Doubtlessly, Rustin's work was made even more difficult because of his sexual orientation. After his arrest in California on a "morals charge," Rustin's identity as a homosexual was public knowledge and was used by his opponents, along with his brief support for communism, to discredit his work and to force him to hide behind leaders like Randolph as he continued to fight for civil rights. This, more than anything, may explain why Rustin is not as well known as other civil rights activists. Although his life was not without suffering, Rustin certainly had his share of successes too. A thorough list of all of Rustin's accomplishments would take pages to list, but the book covers them in detail.
As Rustin aged, he began to embrace democratic politics over demonstrations as the best means to reaching the end of equality. For this and other reasons, including his rejection of Black Nationalism and separatism, Rustin found himself becoming increasingly ignored as no longer relevant to the "black agenda" as time passed. During his final years, Rustin's contributions to the causes of refugees, free and fair elections, and, to a certain extent, gay rights, were all but ignored by a nation that considered him "a grand old man" whose relevance did not extend beyond the mid-1960's. Rustin died in 1987 from cardiac arrest; he was seventy-five.
In presenting his account of Rustin's life, Levine succeeds more often than he fails. The book is well researched, presents a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the civil rights movement, and incorporates brief glimpses of humor and personality into a discussion of Rustin that help portray him as human. Additionally, the reader cannot help but come away from the book with knowledge about other key civil rights activist beyond Rustin; much of the book is spent discussing figures like Randolph, Muste, King, and others. By mentioning uncomplimentary details like Rustin's affected accent, his occasional arrogance, and his break with pacifism to support military aid to Israel, Levine also gains credibility. He should be commended too for his inclusion of Rustin's homosexuality - a topic that other authors have sought to ignore at the expense of providing a true and accurate depiction of Rustin's life.
However, Levine's work is not without flaws and his writing can at times be repetitive. His treatment of Rustin's gay identity frequently seems self-conscious and awkward, referring to "Rustin's indiscreet, almost defiant, homosexual activity" while first incarcerated, and including the strange note that "there was no homosexual incident" while Rustin worked on a chain gang, hypothesizing that he "was too exhausted for much besides work." Levine would also have benefited by including his definition of pacifism in the book. Certainly, more information about Rustin's personal life would have added to the biography too, painting Rustin as a full human being as well as an accomplished activist.
After finishing Levine's work, I was surprised by how attached I felt to Rustin despite the primarily historical tone of the biography. Somewhere along the way, I found myself rooting for Rustin, and saddened by his eventual removal from the "black agenda" and the national stage. Ultimately, the biography opened my eyes to the realities of the civil rights movement in the U.S.: the compromises that had to be made, the conflicts and dissent among activists, the successes and the failures on nonviolent action, and the overwhelming amount of planning and strategy that went into every event, demonstration, and movement that Rustin planned.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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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.