Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen.
One decade after his death, Bayard Rustin, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, is all but forgotten. A long-time aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Rustin helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s, suggested to King the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington showcasing King's "I Have A Dream" speech. In a book ranking the 100 most influential African Americans, past and present, Rustin weighs in above many of today's better known figures, including Andrew Young, Shirley Chisholm, Toni Morrison, Kenneth B. Clark, Louis Farrakhan, Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, and Rosa Parks.
Why is Rustin, one of the great strategists and intellectuals of the civil rights movement, so obscure a figure among the broader public today? The unpleasant answer is that in the last 20 years of his life, Rustin became a thorn in the side of the civil rights establishment, questioning Black Studies and the adherence to preferential affirmative action. Rustin served as a haunting reminder, in the years following King's 1968 assassination, of what the old universalist civil rights movement had been, and what the contemporary movement's skirmish on behalf of narrow interests had become. For serving in that role, Rustin paid an awful price. Before his death in 1987, Rustin's sometime rival, James Farmer, would declare, "Bayard has no credibility in the black community," and since then Rustin has been largely written out of the history of the civil rights movement.
Jervis Anderson, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, has helped to set the record straight, at least in part. Having devoted eight years to producing Rustin's biography, Anderson provides a vivid, if surprisingly incomplete, account of Rustin's life. The author is at his best describing Rustin's early years. Born in 1912 to a teenage mother in West Chester, Pa., Rustin was reared by his grandparents. His grandmother was a Quaker and raised young Bayard with an abiding social conscience and a commitment to nonviolence and pacifism. Years later, Rustin would say, "My activism did not spring from being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing [which emphasized] the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal"
Like many who came of age in the 1930s, Rustin joined the Youth Communist League while a student at City College of New York. He was particularly attracted to the Communists' apparent dedication to racial justice. But when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the Communists abandoned their civil rights agenda to ally with the U.S. against Germany. Rustin was bitterly disappointed and the Communist Party earned itself a lifelong opponent.
During World War II, Rustin could have been excused from the military given his Quaker beliefs. But he thought secular conscientious objectors should receive a similar exemption, and served a jail sentence in protest of the policy. Having rejected the Communists, Rustin began his professional career with the field staff of the Christian pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he studied Gandhi, and provided aid to the fledgling civil rights movement, emphasizing nonviolent resistance to segregation. In 1941, he helped A. Philip Randolph organize what would have been the first March on Washington. (The march was called off when Franklin Roosevelt agreed to ban racial discrimination in defense industries.) Organizing local protests to segregation, Rustin was beaten and jailed repeatedly. But even while incarcerated, he protested racially-segregated prison facilities.
In 1953, Rustin's association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation was abruptly terminated after he was found guilty of engaging in sexual acts with two young men in a parked car outside his hotel in California. It was not the first or last time that Rustin's homosexuality would set back his career. A fellow peace activist said that at the time of his conviction, Rustin was being groomed "to become an American Gandhi," but all that was "destroyed" by the incident in California. Rustin moved on to the more secular pacifist War Resisters League, where he would remain active in nonviolent civil rights protest, aiding King first with the Montgomery bus boycott, and then with the 1963 March on Washington. The March's success, which is today widely celebrated, was anything but inevitable. The effort faced pressure to oust Rustin when Strom Thurmond attacked him as a Communist, draft dodger, and homosexual. Rustin had just seven weeks to organize the March, and in the early morning of the event, he feared the worst as just 200 marchers had assembled by 6:30 a.m. But then, according to The New York Times, a "great crush of humanity spilled over into Constitution Avenue" and by the afternoon more than 250,000 people had congregated, one-fourth of them white. Rustin's colleague Charles Bloomstein noted the significance of Rustin's feat:
If there had been violence that day the media
would have seized upon it, and King's great speech
would have been drowned out. Bayard's masterful
planning of the March made King's speech both
possible and meaningful.
The March, Anderson points out, "signified a moment of genuine interracial optimism never seen in America before or since"
But even then, there were rumblings of dissent. Malcolm X did not appreciate Rustin's March. "Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing in `We Shall Overcome'...while tripping and swaying along, arm-in-arm, with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?"
In 1965, after a quarter-century of involvement behind the scenes in the civil rights and peace movements, Rustin became the executive director of the newly created A. Philip Randolph Institute, his first official position of power. Ironically, it was just as he finally attained a formal position that his popularity within the black community began to wane. In February 1965, Rustin published a controversial article in Commentary entitled, "From Protest to Politics" Rustin argued that with passage of civil rights legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the new challenge for progressives was primarily economic rather than racial. Accordingly, the new agenda had to be race-blind. "There can be no such thing as an exclusive Negro economic program, for that would counterpose the interests of a little more than ten percent of the society to those of the overwhelming majority" He called, instead, for an economic program backed by an alliance of blacks and labor.
The thrust of Rustin's position was ridiculed by many within the black community. Typical was James Farmer's criticism that Rustin's "commitment is to labor, not to the black man." But as David Garrow notes in his biography of King, Bearing the Cross, Rustin's new emphasis had a major impact with an important audience. "Rustin had been telling King for nearly two years that the most serious issues facing the movement were economic problems of class rather than race," Garrow writes, and after the 1965 riots in Watts, King appeared to agree. By 1966, King would argue, "we are now in the most difficult phase of the civil rights struggle [involving] the basic class issues between privileged and underprivileged " Inexplicably, Anderson underplays Rustin's crucial intellectual influence on this question.
After King's 1968 assassination, a friend wrote to Rustin from East Africa, saying, "If you decide to step into his [King's] shoes, it would be one of the few reasons I would return to the States" But of course Rustin, the homosexual, draft-dodging former Communist had no hopes of leading as King had led. Instead, Rustin would, in the 20 years following King's death, play the role of gadfly within the civil rights community. This portion of Rustin's life, which is quite important intellectually and holds the most relevant lessons for contemporary America, makes up little more than a tenth of Anderson's book. The author briefly outlines Rustin's opposition to the Black Studies movement, his attack on efforts by students at Cornell to demand separate black facilities; and his support, in 1968, of white New York City teachers objecting to efforts to replace them with blacks.
But in general, these years get short shrift, and Anderson misleadingly suggests that Rustin's divide with civil rights leaders was largely over the question of black separatism and Black Power. In fact, separatist beliefs never held sway over mainstream civil rights leaders. Instead, Rustin parted with traditional leaders on an issue much more central to the civil rights agenda of the last 30 years--preferential affirmative action. Curiously, Anderson devotes just two short pages to this issue; and worse, he characterizes Rustin's position as for "affirmative action," but opposed to "quotas"--along the lines of President Clinton's "mend it don't end it" approach.
In reality, Rustin was much more critical. In 1969, when Richard Nixon launched a plan for racial preferences in the building trades in Philadelphia, Rustin declared that Nixon was clearly using quotas "to divide black and white workers" He asked: "Why, in fact, would a President who has developed a `Southern strategy,' who has cut back on school-integration efforts, tried to undermine the black franchise by watering down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, nominated to the Supreme Court men like Haynsworth and Carswell...why indeed would such a President take up the cause of integration in the building trades?"
In 1987 months before his death, Rustin gave a speech at the Harvard Memorial Church on King's legacy. After reviewing King's contributions, Rustin declared: "Any preferential approach postulated on racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash" He continued: "However, special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated on class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit" The message did not go over well with Harvard's black student population.
Still, Rustin is held in great esteem in certain circles. His intellectual followers include Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who, like Rustin, has mistakenly been labeled neoconservative for emphasizing broad social democratic change. And Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, named Rustin when asked in 1993 if he had any heroes: "He had the guts to say what he felt was right, no matter how unpopular it was"
None of which is to say Rustin was without flaw. History does not vindicate his role in the peace movement. Rustin invoked pacifism in the war against Hitler, but in the morally ambiguous Vietnam War, Rustin expressed tactical concerns about King's criticisms, and would write: "There is something which is more valuable to people than peace. And that is freedom" Anderson's laudatory biography does little to probe these weak spots. By the same token, Anderson fails to capture the brilliance and eloquence of Rustin's essays, many of which are collected in his 1971 book, Down the Line.
In that volume, one sees the full glory of the civil rights movement-its great moral fire for the abiding value of justice. But reading those essays also leaves one with a strong sense of lost opportunity. With King, we can imagine what might have been, comforted in the notion that we as a society might have risen to the greatness of interracial cooperation, nonviolence, and economic change if only he had lived. But Rustin's life is a sober reminder that the best of King's message, carried on by Rustin, was consciously and deliberately rejected in favor of interest group politics. Rustin ended his life as he had begun it, on the margins. The illegitimate son, homosexual, former Communist, and conscientious objector, became in the end, an outsider even within his own beloved civil rights circle. A devoted Quaker and civil rights activist, he was welcomed most in his later life by the Jewish and labor communities.
Jervis Anderson's book, incomplete though it is, reminds us that a progressive civil rights path remains open to us as an alternative to today's parochial identity politics. Perhaps the retelling of this story will encourage a new generation to pick up the mantle laid down by Bayard Rustin.
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|Author:||Kahlenberg, Richard D.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1997|
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