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City Lights publishes new book of Bayard Rustin's letters

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Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 12:05 am | Updated: 4:17 pm, Tue Mar 27, 2012.

City Lights Books has published a new edition of the letters of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin,  I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.March 17 marked the centennial of Rustin’s birth. One of the Civil Rights Movement’s chief architects, he died in 1987 at the age of 75. Michael G. Long, who edited the 522-page volume of letters, answered some questions about Rustin and his meaning today.

 

Q: For those unfamiliar with Bayard Rustin, can you briefly tell us about him, and also address why there is, perhaps, a broader lack of knowledge about his life and accomplishments?

Michael G. Long: Bayard Rustin was arguably the most important figure in nonviolent protest politics in twentieth-century America. Today he is best known for being the brilliant organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But before he directed that pinnacle event in protest politics, he was one of the most important intellectual and tactical leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He schooled Martin Luther King Jr., in nonviolence as a lifestyle and tactic, and advised him on numerous campaigns.

Rustin was an openly gay man with early roots in the Communist Party. These two factors gave rise to fears in civil rights leaders concerned about maintaining the credibility of the movement. With these fears in tow, they often sought to keep Rustin in the background of their activities. They wanted to use Rustin’s vision and strategic thinking, but they were frightened that his gay sexuality, especially, would taint them in the eyes of the wider public.

 

Q: How did you become aware of Rustin's role in the Civil Rights Movement yourself, and what inspired you to begin the research involved in editing a collection of his correspondence? Were there any surprises along the way?

Michael G. Long: I first became aware of Bayard many years ago when I read David Garrow’s brilliant book on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. When I first read his prison letters, which detail his inner struggles with his gay sexuality, and when I first learned that King was frightened of being too closely associated with Rustin’s sexuality, I was completely hooked on his life. Here was a man whose principled commitments sometimes ran far deeper than even King’s.

I find this book especially important because it allows us to hear Bayard Rustin in his own voice. It gives us the opportunity to hear Rustin speak for himself. There is incredible evocative power in hearing Rustin speaking more than two decades after his death. Because this book offers Rustin in his own voice, readers can actually feel Bayard’s principled passion come to life.

 

Q: Do you have a sense of how Rustin might have perceived Obama’s presidency?

Michael G. Long: Rustin long hoped that civil rights activists would be able to move “from protest to politics.” While he recognized the value of street demonstrations, he also believed that there comes a time when activists need to get off the street and move into the corridors of power, where hard decisions about the resources required for peace and justice are made. Rustin applauded many African-American politicians who sought political office; he saw these efforts as a move to become effective in political society – a requisite for moving toward peace and justice. I hasten to add, though, that he did not support Jesse Jackson in his bid for the presidency, primarily because he believed that Jackson lacked any appeal to voters beyond the African-American community. Rustin was committed to coalition politics in the way that the current president seems to be.

For more information on I Must Resist, visit http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100330920" href="http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100330920">http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100330920

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