Bayard Rustin's historic resurrection

February 16, 1997|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Bayard Rustin," by Jervis Anderson. HarperCollins. 400 pages. $28.

This gracefully crafted biography chronicles the life of one the more remarkable figures of the century. Many were more visible, but none exerted a greater nor more beneficial impact on racial progress in our time than Bayard Rustin.

Most people who can even remember Rustin probably would identify him as the modest, self-effacing ascetic who organized the March on Washington that provided the platform for Martin Luther King's incomparable "I have a dream" speech.

But few know just how close Rustin came to self-destructing at the midpoint of his life through the profligate pursuit of pride, lust, and self-indulgence. It is hard to imagine a man closer to total ruin than Rustin was when he turned 40, in 1952.

He had squandered his great gifts of talent, intellect, and personal magnetism. He had gotten kicked out of every college he ever attended. Even close friends considered him a habitual liar. He had been a communist at the outset of the McCarthy era. And he had just lost his subsistence job after serving 60 days in jail on what was then quaintly called "a morals charge," after having been caught, in flagrante delicto, with two men on a public street.

He was even turned away when he sought a job packing boxes and was reduced to scavenging the curbside refuse of New York. In short, his outlook was so bleak that his psychiatrist remarked, with bitter sarcasm, that since he was black and male, he might consider a career shining shoes. Such was the ignominy borne by a man once groomed to become "an ] American Gandhi."

And yet, this pit of adversity provided what Rustin would call "God's way of turning ugliness and personal defeat into triumph." Through the pity of a few friends who still saw hope in his worth, he got a job with an obscure and impecunious organization called the War Resisters League - at a time when there was not even a war to resist.

Whether by "God's way" or sheer chance, Rustin wound up, three years later, as the shadowstrategist-adviser of Martin Luther King Jr. in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Seven years later, in 1963, he would be the guiding force in mobilizing the March on Washington, which to this day remains a high-water mark of hope in three centuries of rocky race relations America. He was not even among the long parade of speakers on that day.

Inevitably, the old radical grew more conservative with changing times. As a pacifist, he opposed the Vietnam war, but he wanted simply to end the war, not to secure a Viet Cong victory, as did so many of the intractable Left. Rustin only wanted to stop pouring money which was desperately needed to fight the War on Poverty in America into a insane war halfway around the world.

And he lived to endure the taunting scorn of the young apostles of "black power," which principled consistency obliged him to denounce as the mirror image of white racism. But by the time of his death, at 75, in 1987, his position in history was so secure that the nation rang with praise for an extraordinary life.

In his estimable work, "Parting the Waters," King biographer Taylor Branch devotes copious attention to Rustin's quiet role in the civil rights revolution, and remarks that "it would have taxed the creative powers of Dickens or Hugo to invent him." This adulatory biography by Jervis Anderson, a New Yorker magazine writer who once worked with Rustin, does not quite achieve that high demand, because at times this book reads a bit tediously, like the minutes of some forgotten Leftist organization of the Thirties. But that said, this book seems destined to become the definitive work of a man whose life richly deserves historical celebration.

Ray Jenkins, who retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of Th Evening Sun, covered the civil rights movement as a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, a paper he later edited and worked at for 20 years.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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