Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist

By Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long. QuakerPress of FGC, 2014. 166 pages. $16/paperback. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

The strength of this young peopleā€™s biography of Bayard Rustin is in the collaboration of its three authors. Professor Michael G. Long became fascinated with Bayard Rustin after reading about him in a book on Martin Luther King Jr. He decided to compile a book of Rustinā€™s letters and turned for help to Walter Naegle, who was Rustinā€™s partner for the last ten years of Rustinā€™s life. Naegle knows Rustinā€™s story well because of their personal relationship as well as his work with the Bayard Rustin Fund promoting Rustinā€™s values.

Naegle and Long decided to promote those values further by writing a biography for young people. They turned to QuakerPress of Friends General Conference to help them find someone with experience writing serious books for young people. They recruited Jacqueline Houtman, a Quaker from Madison, Wis., who has written fiction and nonfiction about bioscience for young people.

The goal of this book is not simply to inform young people about Rustinā€™s life, but to inspire them to become social activists. The book begins with a quote from Rustin: ā€œWe need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.ā€ The authors explain that Rustin believed such ā€œangelic troublemakersā€ are essential to creating a better world. They invite young readers to ā€œenjoy the pages ahead and then go make some troubleā€”angelically.ā€

The authors first engage their intended audience with several chapters about Rustinā€™s own youth. They describe how both his grandfatherā€™s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and the Quaker faith of his grandmother influenced him. The daughter of the AME pastor taught Bayard elocution when he was in the fifth grade. The results of those lessons were apparent for the rest of his life whenever Rustin spoke. When his Quaker grandmother learned that he and some fifthā€grade classmates had chanted a racist verse to a local Chinese American, she required her grandson to work at the manā€™s laundry every day after school for two weeks without pay. When Rustin went to college, he first attended the AMEā€founded Wilberforce University and then the Quakerā€founded Cheyney State Teachers College.

Rustin later moved to New York City where he earned money by singing. He fought for racial equality, first with the Young Communist League and later with labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and also worked against war with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). When the United States joined the Second World War, Rustin refused to register for the draft and was imprisoned. While imprisoned, he advocated for the desegregation of the prison.

After his release, Rustin returned to work with FOR, but was fired after being convicted for a homosexual encounter while he was in Pasadena, Calif., to give a lecture on world peace at an event sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee.

The authors then recount how he got a job as an organizer with the War Resisters League, but was later called to Montgomery, Ala., during the bus boycott to advise Martin Luther King Jr. on the principles of nonviolence. The authors address at greater length his work in organizing the spectacularly successful 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

They briefly describe Rustinā€™s postā€1963 career with the A. Philip Randolph Institute. They highlight Rustinā€™s decision not to challenge U.S. involvement in war in Vietnam and his ambivalence about the 1968 Poor Peopleā€™s Campaign. The authors also examine Rustinā€™s leading a march of Memphis garbage workers that Martin Luther King Jr. had been planning to lead when he was killed, and his involvement with gay rights and various international human rights issues.

A final chapter addresses how Rustin has been honored after his death, including the controversial decision in 2002 to name a new high school for him in his hometown of West Chester, Pa., and the Presidential Medal of Freedom that President Obama awarded him in 2013.

This book is enriched by many illustrations as well as sidebars explaining concepts and events such as Quakerism, McCarthyism, apartheid, Jim Crow, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Stonewall resistance. The authors demonstrate their commitment to treating their readers as scholars by including 126 endnotes, a detailed timeline, discussion questions, and a bibliography.

Like We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin by Larry Dane Brimner, this book will interest young teenagers. Unlike Brimnerā€™s photo essay collection of Rustin stories, however, this book will also engage older teenagers. It addresses in detail Rustinā€™s adult personal life and his interactions and conflicts with allies, which are an important part of the work of any activist. It is also a good introduction for adults of any age who are unfamiliar with Bayard Rustin.

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