When you step into San Francisco's Castro Theatre you feel as though you are stepping back in time. The luxuriously restored 1920s movie palace is a registered city landmark. From the Art Deco chandelier to the ornate plasterwork of the walls and ceilings, the theatrical experience envelops the viewer. The time machine effect of the theater is completed when the live organist descends beneath the stage as the house lights go down and the film begins.
So it was on the evening of the San Francisco premiere of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin in 2003. 1 The film captures the lithe beauty and grace of this much overlooked civil rights activist, and it also gives viewers the chance to hear the power of Bayard Rustin's oratory and his soaring, falsetto singing voice, both of which rang out in the lavish, cavernous space of the Castro Theatre. One couldn't help but feel that Rustin's spirit was looking on the scene and screen with pride. [End Page 135]
In Brother Outsider we hear a bevy of Rustin's fellow activists, former lovers, and movement historians discuss the amazing political legacy of this gay black activist with socialist leanings. All of this happened despite the fact that Rustin lived in a country and at a time when being gay or black or socialist was a near guarantee of political oppression. When taken together, it's difficult to imagine how Rustin could have ever fashioned these "outsider" identities into a weapon for social change and a position as the quintessential civil rights insider. It's even more difficult to imagine how a generation after Rustin's death this organizer of the 1963 March on Washington—the undisputed pinnacle of the American civil rights movement—has been largely forgotten.
Addressing this historical amnesia was clearly central to the making of Brother Outsider, but it becomes the nearly evangelical mission of John D'Emilio's biography Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. A historian who should be no stranger to readers of this journal, John D'Emilio is the author of several books on the history of sexuality, including Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (with Estelle Freedman), and The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture.
After introducing the combination of circumstances that have led most Americans to forget Bayard Rustin, D'Emilio takes readers to the district in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where Rustin grew up. Given Rustin's race and working-class background, of course, the West Chester Historical Society had very little evidence that shed light on the future civil rights leader's formative years. Still, D'Emilio uses both original and archival oral history interviews to reconstruct Rustin's young life in a relatively progressive Quaker community but one that still held to many of the basic tenets of segregation. In West Chester Rustin's grandmother was the guiding light of his young life, "melding a Quaker ethic of service with African American traditions of communal solidarity" (11).
A promising young student and athlete, Rustin survived and even thrived in the predominantly white world of rural Pennsylvania. Since he traveled in integrated, heterosexual, activist circles for much of his adult life, this ability to shed the mantle of "outsider" and gain insider acceptance without sacrificing his character and principles would later serve him well.
Given his grandmother's devotion to her African Methodist Episcopal Church and the moral teachings of the Quaker community in which she lived and worked, one might assume that Bayard's emerging awareness of his sexual identity would have been a divisive issue in the Rustin family. Yet this was...