"Visionary." "Inspirational." "Controversial." "Black." "Gay." These are some of the many words used as description for Bayard Rustin in Lost Prophet: the Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D'Emilio. He was a nonviolent civil rights activist who firmly believed in the effectiveness of this approach and, despite all of the challenges he faced, was impervious to setbacks - though he had many of them. The author portrays Rustin as one of the unsung heroes of the twentieth century and as an instrumental player in promoting racial equality who is often forgotten and lost in the shuffle of history. This biography is a testament to all that he accomplished; trying in earnest to ensure that his name and impact is no longer overlooked.
Long before the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960's, Rustin was deeply involved in promoting equality through the means of non-violence. Raised a Quaker the ideals of pacifism were well embedded in his philosophies that it was only after joining forces with other pacifists, like A.J. Muste, that they together formed several successful organizations. Though his participation in these associations, like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was impressive it was his personal efforts that were most notable. In the 1942 while on a bus he decided to move to the white section; a decision that resulted in violence he refused to react to and imprisonment.
As an African-American, a homosexual, a former communist, conscientious objector, and pacifist the challenges he faced were many. Not only was he battling the stigmas of his race, he was also battling the stigma of his sexual orientation at a time when recognition of homosexuality was minimal. One event in which he was caught in the midst of a "lewd act" nearly derailed his lifetime of work and goals. Yet, as he continually did, he overcame that seemingly insurmountable obstacle and furthered his role in the civil rights movement. He forged a strong relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and taught him the tenants of a nonviolent movement. As a common acquaintance Glenn Smiley said, King "knew nothing" of Ghandian pacifism before Rustin. Though he witnessed the realization of many of his goals, Rustin believed that the fight was never over. As the fight for racial equality slowed down, Rustin recognized that the next big hurdle would be the struggle for gay rights.
D'Emilio's biography of this dynamic historical character is, without a better word to describe it, impressive. For a work of non-fiction, Lost Prophet, reads much like a novel. With simple prose and elegant descriptions, D'Emilio writes a thorough account without being daunting or arduous. He effectively contextualizes Rustin's movements from decade to decade with the appropriate political, economic, and social climate. Because of this we know, for example, that his flirtation with communism in the 1930's had less to do with Stalin's ideas and more to do with the belief that capitalism could not save the floundering American economy. D'Emilio researched Rustin's life so meticulously that one of my only criticisms is that, because he was too specific and detail oriented at times, my attention wavered slightly- though I would imagine that most people would not consider careful research to be a negative.
Finishing this biography of a man I had never heard of, yet who was clearly quite influential, leaves me curious about what else I do not know. Growing up, we are told of the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he lead, yet little attention is paid to the behind the scenes efforts and the other people involved. Bayard Rustin is a shining example of how popular history can have a blind-spot. And because of this, I thank John D'Emilio for writing this informative biography and for teaching me some forgotten history about the Lost Prophet.