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July 23, 2014, 12:05 pm

In Rustin’s letters, ‘lost prophet’ speaks for himself

Bayard Rustin has been called the “lost prophet” of the Civil Rights Movement, a master strategist and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a deeply influential figure in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite these achievements, Rustin often remained in the background, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. Published on the centennial of his birth, and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters” (City Lights, $19.95) are his words shining through a collection of more than 150 of Rustin’s letters. His correspondents include major figures of his day — for example, Eleanor Holmes Norton, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ella Baker and of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have file boxes full of Rustin’s letters that I tracked down in archives across the country,” said book editor Michael G. Long. “The time it took to complete the research was much longer than I had predicted, not just because of the number of letters I had in hand, but also especially because for their high quality. It was incredibly difficult to weed out those letters I really liked but that did not serve the purpose of putting together a publishable narrative of letters. And there are quite a few of those that are topically fascinating but not easily fitting for a narrative.”

Long has a doctoral degree from Emory University and is the author or editor of several books on civil rights, politics and religion, including “Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall” and “First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson.” “I chose letters with the following questions in mind: Do they tell us anything new about Bayard? Do they offer special insights into the history of nonviolent struggle? And, can they serve my efforts to share Bayards’s life in a chronologically tight way?”

Long has a special interest in the genre of letters, and Rustin, who grew up in West Chester, just about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, provides ample insights. “One of the most interesting parts of the collection is his use of code language when writing about his love life from prison,” explains Long. “In some of the letters, and for obvious reasons, he refers to his gay lover as a woman. These letters are especially painful to read because they reveal awful agonies over his sexuality — including his question of whether it would be good to develop a relationship with a woman who has declared her love for him.

“Most surprising to me, though, was the letter in which he offered his support to [Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode] just after he bombed a house occupied by MOVE, a radical Black liberation group. Although a pacifist, Rustin had long believed in the value of police action. But the fact that he supported the dropping of a bomb on MOVE seems out of character. 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.”

Michael G. Long will discuss “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters” on Thursday, March 29, 5:30 p.m.–7 p.m. at Giovanni’s Room, 345 South 12th Street. For more information, call (215) 923-2960.

 

Contact Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .