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Date: Wed, 24 Mar 1999 02:49:53 -0800 (PST)
From: Art McGee <amcgee@igc.org>
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Bayard Rustin and the Rise and Decline of the Black Protest Movement
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Bayard Rustin and the Rise and Decline of the Black Protest Movement

By Stephen Steinberg, New Politics, Vol.6 no.3 (n.s.), whole no. 23, Summer 1997

"THERE HAS BEEN . . . A NEGRO REVOLT in every decade of this century," Lerone Bennett wrote in 1963. "Each revolt failed, only to emerge in the next decade on a higher level of development."1 If there is a single person who served as the nexus between these decennial revolts, it was Bayard Rustin. This is one of the important lessons to be drawn from Jervis Anderson's recent biography: Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen.2 Indeed, if Anderson had his politics right, the subtitle would have read: Troubles I've Caused.

Rustin is to be remembered as a political gadfly who, more than any other single person, was a catalyst behind the various stages of the civil rights movement as it evolved from individual acts of resistance, to fledgling organizations that forged a praxis for challenging the Jim Crow system in the South, to a full-fledged political movement that not only overcame seemingly insuperable odds to achieve is immediate objectives, but also ushered in a period of extraordinary progressive transformation. This is Bayard Rustin's incontestable political legacy. Unfortunately, Rustin must also be remembered for his political perfidy, beginning in 1963, when he made a fateful shift "from protest to politics."

Anderson's rich biography sheds light on the formative influences that shaped Rustin's sensibilities and politics. Rustin was raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania, by his maternal grandmother, who was a Quaker in her youth, and became a charter member of the NAACP in 1910. These two political strains -- pacifism and racial activism were to become the leitmotif of Rustin's life, though as we shall see, they at times coalesced into a potent amalgam but at other times were fatally at odds with one another.

Rustin's career as political activist began in high school when he was arrested for refusing to sit in the balcony of the local moviehouse, dubbed Nigger Heaven. As offensive lineman on the football team, he instigated a revolt among his black teammates to their Jim Crow accommodations. He led a group of classmates in acts of defiance to Jim Crow practices in restaurants, soda fountains, movie houses, department stores, and the YMCA. Graduating with honors in 1932, Rustin was class valedictorian and received a prize for excellence in public speaking. If this were the first act of a play, one would applaud the playwright for skillfully weaving together the various elements of personality and intellect that would drive the narrative.

Rustin did two short stints at black colleges, Wilberforce and Cheyney State Teachers College. In the spring of 1937, he returned to Cheyney for a two-week training program as a peace volunteer, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. Here peace volunteers were trained in the tactics of opposing war with courage and goodwill, and then dispatched to towns and cities across America. That winter Rustin abruptly packed his bags and moved to Harlem, where he lived with his aunt, a public-school teacher, on Sugar Hill. The Communist Party had a conspicuous presence in Harlem. As Rustin would comment later, it was the one organized group speaking out about the Scottsboro case and the ravages of Jim Crow in the South. It was apparently at the behest of the Young Communist League that Rustin enrolled as a student at CCNY in 1938. There he played a leading role in the Communist takeover of the student senate, its campus newspaper, and the American Student Union. In 1941 the YCL commissioned Rustin to organize a campaign against segregation in the armed forces, but that directive was abruptly withdrawn when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Disillusioned, Rustin quit the YCL, and on that very day walked down the hill into A. Philip Randolph's office. In short order Rustin was assigned to head the youth arm of Randolph's emerging March on Washington Movement (MOWM).

According to Anderson, Rustin registered "explosive dissent" at Randolph's decision to call off the march after Roosevelt issued his executive order desegregating defense industries. He and other "radical youth organizers" were also disappointed that no concessions had been won concerning the desegregation of the armed forces. With the MOWM in remission, Rustin shifted his allegiances to the pacifist movement, and began working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). As field secretary for youth and general affairs, Rustin crisscrossed the country, organizing new chapters, lecturing on college campuses, addressing civic and religious groups -- in short, honing his skills as a political organizer.

FOR WAS A BREEDING GROUND FOR RADICAL IDEAS AND LEADERS, most of whom were disciples of Mahatma Gandhi. With James Farmer as its race relations secretary and Rustin as field secretary, FOR was the progenitor of the Congress of Racial Equality, founded in 1940 with Rustin as its first field secretary. CORE combined the racial militancy of Randolph's MOWM with the tactics of the pacifist movement, thus forging a new praxis, centered around nonviolent direct action, for challenging Jim Crow in the South. Although CORE's experiments with sit-ins and boycotts were minimally effective in the 1940s, they constituted a political legacy that was readily adopted by the evolving civil rights movement in the 1950s

As a conscientious objector, Rustin was exempted from the draft on the condition that he enlist in the Civilian Public Service. He refused. Like the radical activists in the War Resisters League, Rustin regarded the civilian work camps as aiding the war effort, and he was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. There he joined other conscientious objectors in hunger strikes against segregated seating in the dining hall.

Emerging from prison in June 1946, Rustin went back to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation as race relations secretary, a position that he shared with George Houser. Together they planned a Journey of Reconciliation to demand enforcement of a recent Supreme Court ruling against Jim Crow in interstate buses. Thurgood Marshall warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."3 Marshall was not entirely wrong, at least measured by the short term. Rustin narrowly escaped violence, was arrested and sentenced to a harrowing 22 days on a chain gang, and the buses remained segregated. On the other hand, the Journey was a precursor to the freedom rides of the 1960s. As Rustin commented in 1948: "the Journey of Reconciliation was organized not only to devise techniques for eliminating Jim Crow in travel, but also as a training ground for similar peaceful projects against discrimination in such major areas as employment and in the armed services."4 Rustin's political genius was his ability to simultaneously pursue short-term and long-term objectives, without allowing one to eclipse the other.

It is noteworthy that Rustin's activism on behalf of civil rights was grounded in a broader matrix of ideological principles, and his activism found varied outlets. Indeed, Rustin was the peripatetic organizer who over a lifetime of activism would gravitate to whatever struggle emerged for peace, democracy, or racial justice. In 1946 he travelled to India to meet with Gandhi intellectuals, stopping in Britain to address various pacifist groups. Then he worked for several years in a campaign against America's development of nuclear weapons and its programs for war preparedness. Soon after the abortive Journey of Reconciliation he travelled to Paris and Moscow with David Dellinger and other pacifists. In Paris he learned about the emerging anticolonial struggles in Africa, and in 1952 travelled to Africa on a mission sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee, with the purpose of linking American pacifist movement with leaders of West African independence. After a humiliating arrest for a homosexual incident in 1953, he was ejected from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But a year later he was appointed executive secretary of the War Resisters League, a position that he retained for 12 years, though he was frequently "released" to work with the evolving civil rights movement.

RUSTIN'S RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY CAME IN DECEMBER 1955, when Rosa Parks's act of courage precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott which would catapult Martin Luther King into a leadership position. By February Rustin was summoned to Montgomery. At 44 he was a seasoned organizer; King, at 27, was a neophyte who by sheer accident was drawn into the swirling vortex of black revolt. King had previous academic exposure to Gandhi, but according to Anderson, it was Rustin who prevailed on King to dispense with armed guards and to embrace nonviolent action as the trademark of the budding movement. It was also Rustin who forged links to radicals in the North. In April 1956 Liberation carried King's first piece of political journalism, and Rustin and the War Resisters League mobilized leading pacifists and radicals into a Committee for Nonviolent Integration which funneled aid to King. Rustin helped to organize yet another group, In Friendship, which sponsored a rally at Madison Square Garden that raised some $20,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association. There was always nervousness among King's advisors about Rustin's Communist past and his homosexuality, but his organizing skills and political savvy proved indispensable.

It would be difficult to exaggerate Rustin's contribution as the Montgomery boycott evolved into a broad strategy for protest. According to Anderson, Rustin "conceived and charted" the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison. This was to serve as the organizational mechanism for King's ascent to national prominence. Over the next decade Rustin remained a close advisor to King, especially during moments of crisis. Rustin was the chief organizer of the Prayer Pilgrimage -- a precursor to the March on Washington. Held at the Lincoln memorial on the third anniversary of the Brown decision, the Pilgrimage drew some 30,000 participants from labor, student, religious, and civil rights organizations. This was King's first major protest event outside the South, and his oratorical gifts captured the attention of commentators both inside and outside the movement. Rustin also had a hand in drafting King's first book, Stride Toward Freedom, which reached a national audience with the riveting story of the Montgomery boycott. In 1958 Rustin organized yet another mass demonstration in Washington -- the Youth March for Integrated Schools. These were the feats of creative organizing through which the civil rights movement grew from a regional protest against Jim Crow to a national movement for racial justice.

Again it is noteworthy, especially as a foreshadow of Rustin's later deviation, that even during this period of heightened racial conflict, Rustin never abandoned his pacifist crusade. As Anderson put it, Rustin was "a leading member of the radical jet set," flying off to conferences in Europe, India, and Africa. In late 1959 Rustin was abroad protesting France's first nuclear test in the Sahara, and was absent from the planning for the 1960 national conventions, much to the ire of Randolph. According to Anderson, "Rustin therefore found himself in the middle of a tug-of-war between the two political causes to which he was equally committed, pacifism and black protest activism."

Yet it was Bayard Rustin who emerged as the chief organizer and tactician for the climatic 1963 March on Washington. Despite the qualms of some civil rights leaders, Rustin was named Randolph's deputy director. The march was originally conceived, not as a demonstration for civil rights, but as a demonstration around economic issues, particularly the need for jobs and a higher minimum wage. It was to be sponsored by the Negro American Labor Council, the association of black trade unionists that Randolph formed within the AFL-CIO. According to an internal memorandum that Rustin prepared for Randolph, the march would entail "the co-ordinated participation of all progressive sectors of the liberal, labor, religious, and Negro communities." It was King who insisted that the march focus on civil rights as well as economic issues, and to appease King the march was renamed as a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The March is remembered as the epitome of protest politics. It was, after all, "the biggest, and surely the most diverse, demonstration in history for human rights." In retrospect, however, the March was the glorious finale of the protest movement, and embodied the seeds of an imminent transformation "from protest to politics," for Rustin personally and for the movement as a whole.

THERE WAS A POLITICAL PRICE TO THE COALITION that Rustin so actively sought. In order to enlist the support of hundreds of civic, labor, and religious organizations, the politics of the march had to be confined to what was politically safe. As Milton Viorst comments in Fire in the Streets, "the March increasingly adopted the posture of a moral witness against evil; participation became not a matter of politics but of conscience, and support swelled."5

Thus, while the March had all of the earmarks of "protest," it actually represented the ascendancy of a new brand of "coalition politics," the antithesis of the politics of confrontation that were at the core of the black protest movement. Nothing better illustrates this than the well-documented muzzling of John Lewis. According to Viorst:

Lewis had planned to denounce Kennedy's civil rights bill as inadequate, and declare that SNCC could not support it. He saw an opportunity for SNCC to shatter an illusion that the palliatives of liberal America could achieve the goals of racial justice. SNCC's rhetoric was now of revolution.

Rustin required all speakers to hand in the text of their speeches the night before, and Lewis's touched off an acrimonious debate. James Forman, who helped draft the speech, insisted that it was "a dynamite speech" that "would puncture the tranquility of the march and the efforts of the Kennedy administration to make this look like a popular uprising in favor of his civil rights bill."6 On the other hand, Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall were determined that Lewis be muzzled, and they enlisted the support of Bishop Patrick O'Doyle who was scheduled to deliver the opening invocation.7 Even as the ceremonies were about to begin, O'Doyle threatened to withdraw. At a hasty conference behind the Lincoln Memorial, Randolph and Rustin prevailed on Lewis to excise the controversial passages.

Thus did a mass demonstration at the apex of the black revolt against America's racial tyranny proceed without so much as a discordant note that might rankle the political establishment. King's celebrated I-have-a-dream oration was embraced precisely because it vented no anger, cast no aspersions, but on the contrary, invoked America's ideals and substituted utopian reverie for political action. It is worth noting that King's oration had another message: "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges." But if these words were heard at all, they were instantly expunged from collective memory.

After King spoke, it was Rustin who took the microphone, asking for verbal ratification of the goals of the March: passage of Kennedy's civil rights bill, a $2.00 minimum wage, desegregation of schools, a federal public-works job program, and federal action to bar racial discrimination in employment. Later that evening Rustin and the other civil rights leaders were received at the White House, remuneration for keeping within the bounds of political acceptability.

Whether the March, with its decorum and stirring oratory, helped to build momentum for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is open to question. Malcolm X's appraisal is memorable: "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?" Even the New York Times concluded that the demonstration "appeared to have left much of Congress untouched physically, emotionally, and politically."8 To say, as Anderson does, that "in November 1963, the spirit of the March on Washington was dealt a severe blow by the assassination of President Kennedy" is to miss the point. It was Kennedy's assassination and Johnson's subsequent landslide that secured the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

ACCORDING TO ANDERSON, IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE MARCH Rustin "began emerging as a political figure in his own right, not simply an intellectual factotum of the protest movement." No longer the outsider, the gadfly, the troublemaker, he was photographed alongside Randolph on the cover of Life. Whether such personal blandishments played a role in Rustin's move toward the respectable center is difficult to say. What is clear, though, is that the 1963 March marked a decisive turn in Rustin's politics. It would be followed in short order by three events that would complete his political metamorphosis:

1. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention Rustin was drawn into the imbroglio over the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized by SNCC, to unseat the party regulars. At Johnson's behest, Walter Reuther and Hubert Humphrey brokered a compromise that would have given the FDP two seats alongside white supremacists in the Mississippi delegation. Rustin opted on the side of compromise. This, from the man whose credo as both pacifist and civil rights activist was never to forego principle for expediency, never to back down even if one had to endure the blows and the retribution of the oppressor.

It is one thing, predictable and even pardonable, that pragmatists within the Democratic Party would seek a compromise to avoid a fissure that could bring the party down to defeat. But it is quite another thing when Bayard Rustin -- the personification of resistance -- capitulates to Dixiecrats from a state infamous for racist violence and the murder of civil rights workers. According to Anderson, this episode "marked the virtual end of the popularity Rustin had once enjoyed among young militants of the protest movement."

2. Rustin's next act of political perfidy took the form of an article that he published in the February 1965 issue of Commentary. Aptly entitled "From Protest to Politics," the article was a manifesto in reverse. Now that the structure of segregation had been destroyed, Rustin reasoned, the politics of confrontation had outlived its purpose. Future progress would depend not on the tactics of direct action, but forging a progressive coalition that would seek power through the Democratic Party. To quote Rustin:

The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States. I speak of the coalition which staged the March on Washington, passed the Civil Rights Act, and laid the basis for the Johnson landslide -- Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.9

In the abstract, this might well seem a plausible political stratagem. The reality, however, was quite otherwise. In the first place, Rustin's strategy was predicated on blind faith in the labor movement. Rustin wrote: "The labor movement, despite its obvious faults, has been the largest single organized force in this country pushing for progressive social legislation." However, the pervasive racism in labor unions can hardly be wiped away with a parenthetical phrase: "despite its obvious faults." In an article in the Fall 1966 issue of New Politics, ironically entitled "From Protest to Politicking," Julius Jacobson derided Rustin's starry-eyed depiction of organized labor in terms that are instructive to those who today look to labor for a resurgence of Left politics:

. . . the coalitionists who preach the vital necessity of a Negro- Labor alliance today and are guided in their actions by coalitionist concepts, never give an idea of what the Labor half of this partnership-to-be looks like! It is an extraordinary omission, especially since most of them will admit that there are "obvious faults" and "inadequacies" afflicting the labor movement. Exactly what and how extensive are these failings? What is its vision? What are the internal practices of labor organizations? What is their record in action? Are they democratic organizations? Etc., etc. These are questions assiduously avoided by most coalitionist theorists, for good reason. . . . To reveal the trade union establishment as it actually is would not only embarrass their patrons but expose the central fallacy of coalitionism.10

Jacobson went on to review the sorry record of unions with respect to blacks, especially the systematic and near-total exclusion of blacks from craft unions, and the failure of the AFL-CIO even to endorse the March on Washington.

Rustin's coalitionism required yet another leap of faith: that the Democratic Party would serve as the venue for a progressive politics. In "From Protest to Politics," Rustin claimed that "the Johnson landslide proved the 'white backlash' to be a myth." We now know that this was a profound miscalculation, that Nixon would soon be swept into office on a white backlash that reached deep within the ranks of organized labor, and that the Democratic Party would renounce its own liberal traditions and gravitate fatally toward the political center. This we know with the benefit of hindsight. However, in his 1966 critique of coalitionism, Jacobson prophetically denounced the idea that Rustin's liberal coalition could ever reshape the Democratic Party into "a truly progressive people's party." To quote Jacobson:

It is a utopian scheme. No such coalition is going to capture the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has its own coalition: a network of hardened political machines which is not going to permit itself to be taken over by Freedom Budget visionaries or permit the Party to be torn apart, with its consequent loss of political power, prestige, patronage, etc.

Rustin's faith in religious groups (read: Jews) also turned out to be misguided. One month after Commentary published Rustin's article forswearing "protest," its editor, Norman Podhoretz, presided at a symposium at New York's Town Hall on "Liberalism and the Negro." In his opening remarks Podhoretz alluded to "a widening split between the Negro movement and the white liberal community." The problem was that "over the past two or three years a new school of liberal (or perhaps it should be called radical) thought has been developing. . . [that] insists that radical measures are now needed to overcome the Negro's inherited disabilities." These "radical measures" included proposals for "a domestic Marshall Plan" and other "crash programs" to address the inequalities between white and black America. What most disturbed Podhoretz, however, was the specter of "preferential treatment for Negroes" to compensate for patterns of entrenched racism in hiring, housing, and other institutions. Podhoretz's message was clear: as far as "traditional liberals" were concerned, their support for the liberation struggle ended with the dismantling of the legal structure of segregation.

AS DERRICK BELL HAS POINTED OUT, WHITES NEED BLACKS to provide ideological cover for their racially regressive policies, and it is difficult to avoid this judgment with respect to Rustin. Like William Julius Wilson today, Rustin helped to legitimate the jettisoning of race-based politics and race-based public policy. There are other similarities as well. Both Rustin and Wilson had a liberal rationale for their retreat from race. Both proposed a multibillion-dollar federal public works program to reach blacks on the fringes of the job market. Both embraced a social democratic politics that would offer economic redemption for blacks, not directly, but through utopian schemes to create full employment and a social democratic utopia. Like Wilson's patrons, Podhoretz was willing to indulge Rustin in his utopian fantasies. What he got in return was a prominent black protest leader who sought to bring the liberation movement back within existing structures of race, power, and class. Above all, Podhoretz got Rustin to utter the magic words, later to be regurgitated by Wilson as well. Alluding to unskilled blacks on the bottom of the labor market, Rustin wrote: "`Preferential treatment' cannot help them."

Again, Jacobson provides an astute rejoinder:

Of course, preferential treatment does not go to the root of the Negro job problem! Neither will a 10c an hour raise for any working man provide him with all the comforts of the good life. Only socialism will do all that. But the 10=9B an hour raise will help. . . . And that is why we support preferential hiring; not because it is the ultimate answer but it is at least a small democratic step in the direction of social justice.

Actually, the "step" turned out to be larger than anyone could have anticipated, inasmuch as "preferential hiring" evolved into affirmative action programs that effectively desegregated major labor markets, in blue-collar as well as white-collar industries.

3. The third and least explicable act of political perfidy was when Rustin became an apologist for Johnson's Vietnam policy. Anderson puts a sympathetic spin on it: "his new role in the building of coalition politics had helped him to recognize that absolute pacifism was no longer politically effective." Needless to say, Rustin's erstwhile allies in the pacifist movement were outraged when Rustin echoed the Administration's line on Vietnam. In "An Open Letter to Bayard Rustin," Staughton Lynd had this emotional reprimand:

Why, Bayard? You must know in your heart that your position betrays your essential moralism over the years. The lesson of your apostasy on Vietnam appears to be that the gains for American Negroes you advise them to seek through coalition within the Democratic Party come only at a price. . . . The price is to make our brothers in Vietnam a burnt offering on the altar of political expediency.11

A remarkable flip-flop from a man who had chosen prison over the Civilian Public Service, and who had been a leading crusader for nonviolence in international affairs.


Rustin's argument in Commentary was influenced partly by his colleagues in the democratic socialist movement, including Tom Kahn, Michael Harrington, and Max Shachtman. "Max was critical to the analysis in 'From Protest to Politics,' Kahn said later. "He felt that the socialist movement ought to reorient itself to the mainstream of the labor movement. And he supplied a similar analysis concerning the civil rights movement, which by itself could not go very far in meeting the deep economic obstacles to racial equality. Shachtman and A. Philip Randolph played key roles in helping us to understand why it was necessary to have a coalition of liberals, trade unions, and other progressive democratic elements."

Actually, the logic of coalitionism was not so discrepant with Rustin's previous politics as might appear at first blush. Remember that Rustin's political career began as a pacifist. Pacifism was the moral and political framework in which he honed the organizing skills that he applied so brilliantly to the nascent civil rights movement. Even as the movement reached full bloom, Rustin continued to devote himself to such issues as non-alignment and nuclear disarmament, shifting back to the civil rights struggle as circumstances unfolded. Not long before he died, Rustin said of himself: "My activism did not spring from being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me." In short, Rustin was a humanitarian and a pacifist even before he was a civil rights activist, and this is why, ultimately, he was able to subordinate the struggle for racial justice to a larger political agenda. Of course, there is paradox and tragedy that in his pursuit of utopian ends, Rustin betrayed the principles and the movement that he had done so much to advance.

There is a second and related factor. Together with Randolph, Rustin was in the tradition of socialists who regarded the struggle for racial justice as secondary to class struggle. Even in the 1940s there were black socialists like Ralph Bunche who pooh-poohed the NAACP's legalistic approach because it failed to address issues of political economy that were at the root of the black plight. In "From Protest to Politics," Rustin also wrote: "I fail to see how the movement can be victorious in the absence of radical programs for full employment, the abolition of slums, the reconstruction of our educational system, new definitions of work and leisure." His error was not in his analysis, but in his praxis: that blacks must enter into a coalition that would seek redemption within the framework of the Democratic Party. This is where he swallowed the Shachtman bait, hook, line, and sinker.

A caveat is in order. In positing "protest" in opposition to "politics," we must beware of a false dichotomy. Clearly, both are necessary in pursuit of racial justice. Johnson's 1964 triumph, though short-lived, did raise the possibility of achieving important ends though the Democratic Party, and certainly the War on Poverty was a major step in that direction. On the other hand, the liberals who planned the war on poverty would have made little headway had it not been for the pressures that were exerted from the revolt: both the organized campaign of the civil rights movement and the unorganized protest that was played out in the ghettos across America -- the so-called "riots" that galvanized political action and frightened white America into funding a war on poverty.

IN SHORT, "PROTEST" AND "POLITICS" ARE MUTUALLY DEPENDENT. But herein lies the tragedy of Rustin's defection. Rustin was the man, second perhaps only to King, who personified the protest movement. For Rustin to cross that fateful line from protest to politics threatened to take the steam out of the protest movement, and at the very least, denied it of its most effective organizer and tactician. In the final analysis, Rustin's most grievous transgression was that, by his example, he was willing to substitute politics for protest.

Furthermore, once Rustin committed himself to the false god of coalition politics, all of his lifelong principles went asunder. Rustin aligned himself with "the conservative wing of organized labor," as James Farmer commented in a 1989 interview. When Arthur Fletcher and George Shultz prevailed upon Nixon to resurrect the Philadelphia Plan, originally conceived under the Johnson Administration, Rustin ardently espoused labor's position in opposition to a policy that mandated desegregation of the building trades. When the unions in New York opposed an experiment for community control of schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district of Brooklyn, Rustin again took the side of the unions. Rustin looked to the labor movement as an instrument for black progress, and it was with a founding grant from the AFL-CIO in 1965 that Rustin was ensconced at the A. Philip Randolph Institute. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the labor movement used Rustin as cover for its refusal or inability to address its racially regressive practices.

The early Bayard Rustin remains an inspirational figure, all the more so at a time when the radical tide is in such low ebb. Let us return to Lerone Bennett's perspicacity: that the black revolt failed in each decade only to reemerge on a higher level of development. Rustin's example testifies to why this is so. Because there are people in the trenches who keep the radical faith. Who are there to resuscitate flagging movements. Who function as purveyors of radical ideas and a radical praxis, even at times when their impact is minimal. Who develop incisive and uncompromising critiques of the political establishment. Who place honesty and principle above winning elections. And who are there when . . . when the conditions are ripe for radical ascendancy.

This is the lesson to be drawn from Bayard Rustin's remarkable personal odyssey: to stay the course even when the radical tide is in low ebb. There is also a lesson to be drawn from Rustin's political fall: to resist the blandishments of power during those rare moments of radical ascendancy.


1. Lerone Bennett, "Tea and Sympathy: Liberals and Other White Hopes," in The Negro Mood and Other Essays (Chicago: Johnson Publications, 1963), p. 22.

2. Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen: A Biography (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997).

3. Quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, p. 114.

4. Bayard Rustin, "Civil Disobedience, Jim Crow, and the Armed Forces," talk delivered on April 11, 1948, in Down the Line (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), p. 50.

5. Milton Viorst, Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960's (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 226.

6. Quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, p. 260.

7. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross (New York: William Morrow, 1986), p. 282.

8. Quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, p. 263.

9. Bayard Rustin, "From Protest to Politics," Down the Line, p. 119.

10. Julius Jacobson, "From Protest to Politicking," New Politics Vol. V, No. 4 (Fall 1966), pp. 47-65.

11. Quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, pp. 295-96.

(Stephen Steinberg writes frequently for New Politics. His book, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, received the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship by the Race and Ethnicity Section of the American Sociological Association.)

(c) 1997 New Politics

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