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Subgenre: African American history, biographical, collected writings
Format: Trade paperback
Source: Provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The Right Side of History, there were various folks and events that I wanted to learn more about. One of the folks who I wanted to learn more about was Bayard Rustin. Now, I have taken coursework in African American history, and recently did the Civil Rights Tour my college offers for faculty and staff. While I learned a lot about Dr. King, I did not hear a word about Rustin, a man who was one of his most senior advisers and even organized the March on Washington. Lucky for me, Cleis Press also published a collection of Rustin's writings, and I was invited to write a review as part of their book blog tour. Though I initially read it for review, I can see the book is very timely now given the current events of Charleston, South Carolina as well as the recent SCOTUS decision regarding marriage equality. I get the feeling that much of what Rustin said and wrote remains very relevant today. It is a good time to rediscover this hero of the Civil Rights Movement and get an inside look at those times as well as the times right after the movement.
The book's introduction starts by describing the structure and purpose of the book. This is followed by a biographical sketch of Bayard Rustin's life and activism, showing how his thinking and actions grew and progressed. It also shows that the great man had his flaws; he could be a bit indiscreet at times in his sexual affairs, something he did acknowledge in some of his letters. In such correspondence he mentions how discretion was an important lesson to learn. But he was also a passionate man who could not let an injustice stand, no matter where it was. And he was a man loyal to the Civil Rights Movement even when at times the movement did not show him that same loyalty in return.
It is admirable how early on he was doing great things, even getting invited to meet Gandhi in India in the 1940s. This is not history you hear often in the usual textbooks. Much of Rustin's presence and influence has been erased, often by those in the movements he worked in. Being gay, having connections to the Communist Party, among other things tended to make those he worked with uncomfortable if not outright prejudiced against him. He was also a brave nonviolent fighter, and he even went against his mentors such as A. Philip Randolph when he felt his elders would not go far enough. All in all I hope this book helps bring Rustin back to the spotlight.
An element I found curious and interesting while reading this book is now some in the Civil Rights Movement could display strong brands of sexism and bigotry. This was not just when they shunned or tried to keep Rustin hidden for being gay and/or having communist ties. People like Ella Baker. Even though she went on to become a leader in the SCLC, she faced strong sexism from the Christian ministers in that organization:
"SCLC ministers, few of whom had ever before taken directions from a woman, resisted her authority, while King disregarded Baker's input on substantive matters" (xxv).
Baker would go on to resign in 1960. She took her talents to work on student protest movements. Rustin resigned from SCLC shortly after due to a threat of blackmail with false allegations of him having an affair with Dr. King. Rustin did it for the "greater good." Shamefully Dr. King swiftly accepted the resignation, a move that was criticized by figures such as Muste and James Baldwin. From the book, we see the inside of the Civil Rights Movement, and we see that it was not always unified or in lockstep. The movement could be contentious at times, and the "greater good" may or not always have been the right thing.
As I read this book, I see that so much of this writing is relevant today. While Americans cling to an illusion that racism is over, the reality is we still have a very long way to go in changing society's minds and hearts. By the way, Rustin did look to the future; he likely knew much work had to be done to win hearts and minds. In pieces such as "From Protest to Politics," Rustin did look to the future; he knew the struggle for equality would need to continue. Rustin knew the movement would have to evolve to respond to new challenges. There is much to learn today by reading history as Rustin lived it and taking lessons from his insights, experiences, and strategic thinking.
Rustin looked around, and he saw a need to act broadly. This is reflected in his writings, which show not only how his thinking evolved over time but also the many interests he had and his passion to help those who needed to fight for their rights no matter where they were. He addresses a very diverse range of topics in his writings. This is illustrated in the book's arrangement. The book is divided in the following 6 parts:
- The Making of a Movement
- The Politics of Protest
- African American Leadership
- Equality Beyond Race
- Gay Rights
- Equality Beyond America
Rustin could be controversial, not only for the reasons I have mentioned already. For instance, he raised a lot of questions such as questioning the field of Black Studies in his essay "The Myth of Black Studies." In this essay, he describes how he sees what the field should be versus what he sees it becoming. The essay may give food for thought to scholars in Black Studies today.
The book features a selected bibliography for those who wish to learn more, be it about Rustin or some of the folks he worked with such as Dr. King, A. J. Muste, and A. Philip Randolph.
Overall, this book offers a lot of material that should make people think and reflect. The selections provide a diverse range of Rustin's thinking and advocacy, showing how he went from a leader in the Black Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. to Gay Rights advocate to a humanitarian seeking to help the oppressed around the world. And through it all, he held onto and practiced the principles of nonviolence. Was he perfect? He was a human being with flaws, but he rose to do what was right not letting what others may think deter him. His writing is strong, moving at times. Even in moments when some may disagree with him, he always shows solid logic and argument.
A strength of the book is that is is very accessible. That is in large part because Rustin's writing is very accessible. This is an easy book to read, and I do mean that in a good way. This is a book more people need to pick up. We need to learn more about Bayard Rustin and heed the lessons he offers. He had much to say in his day, and he still has much to say now.
This book is definitely a good choice for libraries both public and academic. I will certainly be ordering it for my library. For me, this is one of the best books I've read this year, and it is one I may go back to now and then if I need further inspiration. It was a great way to learn about a part American history and a man instrumental in civil rights that has been buried. The book is a great work of bringing history back to visibility.
I am giving it the full 5 out of 5 stars.
Additional reading notes:
From the introduction to the book, I wanted to remember this quote by Rustin. These are words that we should heed this day and in the future:
"One has to fight for justice for all. If I do not fight bigotry wherever it is, bigotry is hereby strengthened. And to the degree it is strengthened, it will thereby have the power to turn on me" (quoted in x).
On Rustin not being discreet. He is writing here after an arrest for lewd conduct after a lecture he delivered in 1953:
"I know that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer" (xx).
It was a very hard time to be a gay man, even so if you were open about it. Rustin certainly did not advertise it, but he did not hide it neither. He was true to himself.
In this next quote, he is writing about Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, but this is relevant and still applicable today in light of recent events:
"In response, moderates today warn of the danger of violence and 'extremism' but do not attempt to change conditions that brutalize the Negro and breed racial conflict. What is needed is an ongoing massive assault on racist political power and institutions" (111).
Keep in mind that he is advocating doing this via nonviolent means.
This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges: