20 years later, and remembered for what?

I was immediately delighted to see Bayard Rustin’s name in the first sentence (besides listings) in the New Yorker. As the 20th anniversary of his death passed without a whisper in the press, I first thought they were finally making up for lost time. They spoke of his arrest in 1953, and then paid a paragraph of tribute:

The episode was a source of shame for Rustin, not on account of his homosexuality (about which, for that era, he was astonishingly relaxed) or because of the stigma of jail (he had spent two years in federal prison as a conscientious objector) but because he knew that his carelessness had let down his colleagues in the nonviolent movements for peace and racial equality. Yet his service to those causes did not end. Though he had to resign from the F.O.R., its secular twin, the War Resisters League, soon hired him as its executive secretary. In 1956, he became a mentor to the young Martin Luther King, Jr., beginning an association that, while rocky at times, culminated, on August 28, 1963, in the epochal March on Washington. The cover of the next issue of Life featured not King but the instigator of the march, the labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and its principal organizer, Bayard Rustin.

But then I blinked when I realized they were doing it as a way to talk about Larry Craig, the Senate’s famous closet case and national embarrassment. But no, not about Craig, but about the Reeps who are scared by him:

Rustin’s homosexuality, the Pasadena incident in particular, embarrassed and angered some of his political comrades. But none of them responded to it with cruelty or contempt. Senator Larry Craig, of Idaho, has not been so lucky. No sooner had Craig’s brother Republican politicians learned that he had been caught with his pants down in a men’s-room stall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (where, a year from now, they will arrive by the planeload for their National Convention) than the stampede began.

My admiration for Hendrik Herztberg knows few bounds. But I really wish he’d returned to Rustin at the end, to make clear that he was dealing in two contrasts: a fractious but supportive community and a real leader with a moral message versus a sad, conflicted charlatan.

I now find myself wondering what Roy Cohn, whose stance on the subject exemplifies Craig’s so well, thought of Rustin’s “relaxed” strength.

Update: I can’t be old school and rely on the printed word.  My new friend (and Rustin’s widower) Walter Naegle, tipped me off to Hertzberg’s blog, where he reveals that he actually
grew up knowing Rustin, a dear friend of his Jewish activist parents.  Hertzberg knew long ago, apparently, what I only learned in depth this spring: that the civil rights hero was a prototypical Chelsean.

As a child, I saw him as a literally towering figure, impossibly tall and sinuous. His appearance was as operatic as his voice, with an electric explosion of pepper-and-salt hair, hawklike features, dandyish clothes, and a beautifully carved cane that concealed (I was thrilled to be told) a sharp sword.

Apologies to Hertzberg for my doubts. And Walter also finally put to rest my anxiety with his own response:

 Yes, there is no comparing the two men, but their treatment by their respective “friends and colleagues” says something about “movements” versus “politics.”

Now I’m wondering if Hertzberg grew up in Penn South, where he also might have run into Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine) and the great A. Philip Randolph.


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