Podair pens Bayard Rustin biography

Nicole Capozziello

In 1968, against a backdrop of ever-changing race politics, a lone African-American man supports the white cause in a New York City teachers’ strike. It was this figure who first piqued Jerald Podair’s interest years ago while researching the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, the single most racially divisive event in the city’s modern history. After four years of dedicated research and writing, Podair, associate professor of history and Robert S. French professor of American studies, released a biography called “Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer” this past January.
A pacifist, civil rights leader, socialist, imprisoned draft resister and homosexual, Rustin was a man who sparked controversy by his very existence. As a gay African-American, Rustin was a man who Podair said was “always in the background.” An activist from the ’40s until his death in the ’80s, Rustin helped found the civil rights groups Congress of Racial Equality and Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was the executive director of the War Resisters League, the nation’s leading pacifist group. Rustin was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., training him in the art of nonviolent protest. In 1956, Rustin coached King in the philosophy and tactics of nonviolent direct action during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Rustin later went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington. Brilliant and detail-oriented, Rustin planned everything down to the actual mechanics of the event. “He knew how many port-a-potties you’d need for a crowd of that size. He knew not to put mayonnaise on the sandwiches,” said Podair.
While writing a biography was a new experience for Podair, he found that he really liked the form. “I felt like I was literally having conversations with him,” said Podair, who began his research in 2004. He stressed the importance of having critical sympathy for whomever one studies closely. “I had to understand him in his time and place — for what he was able to accomplish,” he said.
Of course, studying such a recent figure has its advantages. Podair was able to interview important people who knew Rustin personally, including his partner of over a decade. Thanks to the generous help of Corinne Wocelka, director of technical services in the Seeley G. Mudd Library, Podair was also able to get copies of Rustin’s papers from the Library of Congress. Now the property of Lawrence, the microfilm reels are comprised of 15-20,000 pages of Rustin’s personal papers. Podair stated that this acquisition was instrumental in his research. “Corinne probably saved me two years of work.”
Podair has long been interested in urban history and race. He released a book called “The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis” in 2002. He also wrote a paper titled “‘Scab’ or ‘Racist’?: Public School Teachers and the Dilemmas of Liberalism in New York City During the 1960s,” discussing Rustin’s role in this strike.
Attracted to the idea of “telling larger stories through smaller ones,” Podair finds it fascinating that one can study the history of American radical activism, socialism, gay rights, and the labor movement, all through the life of Bayard Rustin.
“Bayard Rustin was the essence of a humanitarian,” said Podair. “When I say ‘humanitarian,’ I mean somebody who tries to help people other than his own group. He tried to help people in trouble, whoever they were.