Eclipsed in his Era, Bayard Rustin Gets to Shine in Ours
By Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, November 6, 2023
Nov 13, 2023 - 11:21:00 AM
The civil-rights mastermind was sidelined by his own movement. Now he’s back in the spotlight. What can we learn from his strategies of resistance?
The principles that Rustin held steadfast exemplify the less glamorous forms of protest and politics. Although utopianism and visionary overreach may be necessary beacons of freedom, they can, he knew, also become its betrayers.Photograph from Library of Congress / Interim Archives / Getty
Bayard Rustin has emerged of late as a hero almost perfectly tuned to our time. A Black civil-rights leader who was an architect of the 1963 March on Washington, he was also, in an aptly intersectional way, a gay man who suffered for his gayness—suffered in the homophobic America of the nineteen-forties and fifties, of course, but also within the homo-suspicious civil-rights movement of the sixties. A peerless manager and mentor, Rustin had still done more, and harder, prison time than almost any of the other great leaders of the movement. He spent two years behind bars in the forties, as a conscientious objector, and once, after a freedom ride, he actually ended up on a chain gang in North Carolina.
He was also matchlessly eloquent, with as distinct and elevated a manner as any American political leader has possessed. Against the charismatic orotundity of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the clipped, impatient nervosity that Malcom X shared with J.F.K., Rustin’s precise, urgent tenor, with his mid-Atlantic accent, stands out. Slightly lisping, smartly concise, he is not trying to inspire or to overwhelm; he is just trying to tell a sharp truth or two. In a video from 1979—he’s wearing a tattersall vest and holding a cigarillo—he shocks a well-meaning interviewer, who asked about the civil-rights era, by insisting, “I don’t think any of the lessons of that period are applicable now,” because “its objectives were veddy concrete and ex-ceed-ingly limited.” (His enunciation at such moments is almost uncannily like Katharine Hepburn’s—and, indeed, Hepburn learned her articulations at Bryn Mawr, not far from the places in Pennsylvania where Rustin learned his.) Rustin popularized the phrase “Speak truth to power,” and memorably insisted that social progress calls for “angelic troublemakers.” Late in his life, he summed up his credo in five simple steps: “1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.”
And now here he is, suddenly, a celebrity. A musical, “Bayard Rustin: Inside Ashland,” about his imprisonment as a pacifist during the Second World War, premièred last spring, near Rustin’s birthplace, in Pennsylvania. The production starred Reggie White as a pointedly virile Rustin and included a daring nude scene, and it wittily used Rustin’s own recordings as a foundation for its score. (Rustin was a decent singer, whose affinities stretched from spirituals to Elizabethan songs, both of which he recorded.) Several new books have appeared, too, among them “Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics,” a collection of essays on his life and times, edited by Michael G. Long. It contains plenty of thoughtful new material, not least an essay by Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle.
Then, there’s the new movie “Rustin,” directed by George C. Wolfe, with Colman Domingo brilliantly taking the title role. The screenwriters, Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, had a difficult story to tell; there’s no martyrdom to provide a tragic shape, and Rustin’s mastery of logistics isn’t an obviously dramatic subject. Yet the film succeeds by the simple tactic of sticking to the truth. Rustin’s sexual adventures—he is shown cruising the avenues and having sex with a young (married) clergyman—are neither underplayed nor sacralized. Though Domingo’s portrayal sometimes shies away from Rustin’s formality, it gets both his energy and his eccentricity. The film manages to convey Rustin’s genius for organization, no easy thing, by spending time on its details. The women who answer the phones in the March on Washington war room are all instructed to answer with the same fictitious name, in order to simplify things when someone calls back: you always get the person you spoke to before. Even as the F.B.I. is putting pressure on Rustin for his homosexuality and his suspected Communism, he urgently instructs his minions to make sure that the sandwiches for the marchers are filled with peanut butter, not cheese: cheese can go bad in the heat. It’s a beautiful detail, capturing a man whose gift was for beautiful detail.
Like Frederick Douglass after the Civil War, working doggedly within the Republican Party, and earning the enmity of the remaining radicals for doing so, Rustin, after the heyday of the civil-rights movement, worked doggedly within the Democratic Party, earning the enmity of his time’s radicals. He was implacably clearheaded about the Soviet Union and its horrors at a time when many Black luminaries, including Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, were delusional about it. (Du Bois’s tribute to Stalin upon the dictator’s death makes unhappy reading for his admirers, of whom Rustin was one.) And his anti-Communism led him to make common cause with figures such as Senator Henry (Scoop)Jackson, the little-remembered leader of the Cold War liberals.
Yet attempts to kidnap Rustin for neoconservatism run up against his equally dogged commitment to a social-democratic program of vast government initiatives and investments. His dream was always of a new New Deal that would go further than the original one had, lifting all boats not by some rising tide of affluence but by giving everyone the same ship and the same sail. He has been praised by Marxist historians for his refusal to reduce inequality to a matter of psychology, of what white people think about Black people, and by neoconservatives for his repudiation of the totalitarian left—though the Marxists dislike his anti-Communism and the neocons dislike his socialism. What to make of him? Is he a man of irresolvable contradictions or one of exactly the right complexities, the kind we still need now?
Rustin was born in 1912 and raised by his grandmother in the Black Quaker belt not far from Philadelphia. His mother was a fluttering, spectral presence in his life—for a long time he believed her to be his sister—and he never knew his father. His grandmother was a devout Quaker, and a critical context in which to place Rustin is that of the African American Friends. Rustin was as much a representative of this creed as King was of the Black Baptist church.
Just as some in the antiwar movement in America were shaped by the now diminishing traditions of liberal Catholicism—think of Eugene McCarthy, Robert Lowell, even Robert Kennedy in his last years—Rustin’s civil-rights work was shaped by the practice of Quaker consensus-seeking. With no set dogma available, members of the Society of Friends have to consult their inner light to navigate, and the many boats are expected to knock against one another as they glide. The necessarily schismatic nature of the civil-rights movement, encompassing godless socialists as well as evangelical Christians, was exactly the right place for someone with a Friends background to flourish. Finding a way from individual crankiness to a working consensus was, as Harold D. Weaver, the leading scholar of Black Quakers, has made plain, a regular Quaker practice.
In 1945, at the height of Rustin’s pacifist struggles with conscription, Jean Toomer, who became a guiding spirit of the Friends movement among African Americans, listed a five-step path against impediments to the inner spiritual life which echoes Rustin’s path toward political progress: “1. See them, one by one; 2. face them; 3. honestly evaluate them; 4. deny, that is, oppose them; 5. struggle with them.” The inner life and the outer life are parts of the same process of incremental improvement.
Toomer urged Quakers toward “not introspection but inspection”—not a Buddhist-like contemplation of the inner self but an inventory of flaws identified and possibilities awakened. Active verbs fill the language of the African American Quakers, above all “watching” and “seeking.” Just as the evangelical Black Baptist church of the South was the ideal incubator for a charismatic and inspiring orator, so the Black Friends were the ideal incubator for an organizer to support that orator.
As a sometime student at City College of New York in the nineteen-thirties, Rustin briefly belonged to the youth wing of the Communist Party U.S.A., an affiliation for which he would later pay a price, in several respects. The complexities of the Party’s engagement with the civil-rights movement were manifold. The Party, tightly under the control of the Soviet Union, was at first strongly for a Zionist-style ideal of a Black nation situated somewhere in the American South—an idea that Rustin later ridiculed in debates with Malcolm X. Then, after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Party turned right around and promoted American national interests as primary and the civil-rights struggle as secondary.
Novels are better indexes of the temper of their time than any scholarly history, and the best way to understand the emotional appeal of the C.P.U.S.A. to young Black intellectuals like Rustin is to reread Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It dramatizes how the Party, in the book named the Brotherhood, maintained an intoxicating air of equality at a time when the two mainstream political parties were at best equivocal about even Black suffrage in the South. The novel dramatizes, too, the Party’s transparently phony rhetoric, and its betrayal of individuals in the pursuit of its own agenda. There’s nothing surprising about the Party’s appeal to Rustin, although he came to see, as Ellison’s narrator eventually does, that it had an instrumental interest in the Black cause, caring only for its own, as defined, mutably, by Moscow.
Leaving the Party, Rustin went to work with A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—a far more potent organization than its name now suggests. Early in 1941, the two men started organizing a march on Washington, to take place that July. Roosevelt responded to news of their plans with an executive order banning discrimination in the U.S. defense industry, and the march was cancelled. Making yourself an inconvenience, or promising to, could produce results, Rustin saw. When his pacifism got him sent to prison in 1944—first in Kentucky and then in Pennsylvania—he took the occasion to protest against segregation in the penitentiaries.
Rustin’s relation to Randolph was as powerful and filial, in its way, as Malcolm’s to Elijah Muhammad, although the instruction was in the pragmatics of politics, not the mythology of race. (Both protégés, significantly, had been fatherless boys.) As Jervis Anderson demonstrates in his remarkable 1973 biography of Randolph, much of which was first published in these pages, Randolph’s group supplied the third leg in the tripod of Rustin’s allegiances: Quakerism, socialism, and the union movement. The civic authority that union leaders enjoyed then was immense; they were vital to the growth of the Democratic Party. (Walter Reuther, who built the U.A.W. and helped establish the A.F.L.-C.I.O., is today a distant memory, but he ought to be on the twenty-dollar bill.) Randolph trained Rustin in the intricacies of organizing, and in its sheer essential tedium. Rustin spent formative years in the places where change gestated—the dusty downtown offices of the War Resisters League, and the Harlem branch of the fledgling Congress of Racial Equality. He learned that the only glamorous part of resistance was the songs. The rest was a lot of phone calls to donors and letters to potential ones. Rustin, for all his elegance, was very much a child of the now lost world of the Old Left—deep into the television era, he was still urging memorandums and long-winded position statements on his followers.
Rustin’s first encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.—one of the most consequential meetings in American history—occurred in February of 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott. Rustin was forty-four; King was only twenty-seven. Rustin, who was officially “on loan” from the In Friendship group, soon persuaded King to form what became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. More than anyone else, Rustin introduced King to the full range of advocates of the combination of nonviolence and committed action, from Gandhi to Niebuhr. (Rustin had spent a couple of months in India in 1948, learning from the Gandhi movement.) He recognized King’s greatness as a speaker and a leader, and helped give him an ideology to make sense of his instincts. “I had a feeling that no force on earth can stop this movement,” he said of King in Montgomery. “It has all the elements to touch the hearts of men.”
Calvin Trillin wrote, in 1968, that the most effective way for the segregationists to cripple the civil-rights movement would have been to pass a law banning metaphor; without its metaphors, the movement was mute. King had a perfect pitch for the metaphoric, and Rustin didn’t—he was too practical-minded—but it was Rustin who put meat on the metaphor’s bones. He also seems to have largely drafted the memoir published, in 1958, under King’s name, “Stride Toward Freedom.” The fact that the memoir doesn’t mention Rustin was, he later said, “my decision and a very sound one.” He explained that he didn’t want King to be linked to someone whom Southern reactionaries had designated a “Communist agitator.”
Rustin was being marginally disingenuous. It wasn’t just his flirtation with the Party that could make the association troublesome; it was also his reputation as a homosexual. The reality, easy to lose track of in our happier times, is that for most of the twentieth century homosexuality was not only illegal on paper but actively pursued by the police as a significant crime. In 1953, Rustin had been arrested in Pasadena for “lewd conduct” with another man in a parked car; he served almost two months in jail and was registered as a sex offender. As a result, he was fired from the pacifist organization he then worked for, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Rustin was not “out” by our standards—he was discreet, and it was only in the last decade of his life that he was able to live together openly with a male partner. But he was out by the standards of his time, when simply not pretending counted as a major step. (W. H. Auden’s biographers struggle to trace the delicate lines of in and out of the period, with Auden still marginally in, and his lover Chester Kallman unapologetically out.)
Homosexuality was more anathema to the existing Black power structure, with its roots both in the evangelical church and in Northern big-city clubhouse politics, than it was to the likes of J. Edgar Hoover. One has the sense that, for Hoover, it was simply one club among many with which to beat agitators over the head (Red, queer: it was all the same). But enemies of Rustin within the civil-rights movement—among them Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the Harlem congressman and power broker—were motivated by a genuine abhorrence of gay men. In both realms, it was a time when an accusation of homosexuality could end a career. (The plot of the most successful political novel of the fifties, Alan Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” pivoted on this fatal accusation, and Lyndon Johnson’s closest aide, Walter Jenkins, had his career ended that way.) So it is astonishing that Rustin survived. A couple of weeks before the March on Washington, the segregationist Strom Thurmond attacked Rustin on the floor of the Senate as a “sexual pervert” as well as a Communist, and the first charge very nearly got Rustin kicked out by the more conservative civil-rights leaders. But Randolph, a conservative man in manners and morals, knew Rustin’s value and stood by him.
Lives worth remembering tend to have one central episode. The new movie does very well with the central episode of Rustin’s life: his role in organizing the March on Washington. We learn how Rustin, who, with Randolph, had helped conceive the march, was banished from it owing to worries about his “character.” How he was called back to run the show when it became clear that no one else could do the job as effectively. (Rustin had already become known for his role in organizing earlier marches, including the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, agitating for school integration.) How he turned a war room of kids, white and Black, into an organizational force, overcame the resistance of the National Park Service, and led the marchers to the Lincoln Memorial. And then was left out of the after-meeting with the Kennedys at the White House.
One point the movie doesn’t make clear is that the march, designed as a demonstration of outsiders, was very much an insiders’ event, too. It drew on the assets of the Democratic Party then in power. Walter Reuther, the president of the U.A.W., not only spoke at the march but helped finance it with dues from his mostly white members. And though the Kennedys resented the march, inasmuch as it pushed them too hard too soon, they also needed it, inasmuch as they knew that they had to be seen as being pushed if they were to move on civil rights. All this was part of Rustin’s central understanding: pragmatism and principle intertwine to make progress.
A year later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil-rights groups defied Mississippi’s whites-only Democratic Party by creating a parallel party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, open to all. L.B.J., fearing defections by the “regular” delegates, would seat no more than two delegates from the protest group at the Democratic National Convention. Accept the deal or walk out? “When you enter the arena of politics, you’ve entered the arena of compromise,” Rustin, very much in character, urged the Freedom delegates; defeating the Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was too important to be sidetracked by squabbles. But it was a policy of patience for an increasingly impatient time, and succeeded only in opening a fatal space between him and a new generation of activists.
If aspects of Rustin that were once suppressed as controversial can now be played up, aspects that are today viewed as controversial are, inevitably, played down. Perhaps the most notable absence in the Rustin film—and in much of the writing about him—is the scale and the significance of his dispute with Malcolm X and, later, with the Black Power movement. His confrontations with Malcolm were the most dramatic moments in his career, the kind that screenwriters normally seek out, but no doubt it would have risked the audience’s sympathy to pit one Black hero against another, more telegenic one.
Now that scholars have worked to rehabilitate the Black Power movement, Rustin’s critique of it has been muffled. But Rustin and Malcolm’s opposition is a perfect example of the division in any national liberation movement between the charismatic absolutist and the pragmatic pluralist. Whether the oppressor is the European colonialist or the white supremacist, the responses are the same.
The Malcolm with whom Rustin squared off—they met for three high-profile debates, between 1960 and 1962—was a vehement separatist. (This was before Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam and his late-in-life embrace of a more universalist creed.) Underlying Rustin’s argument is an assessment that illuminates all his thought. He recognized that Black Americans, though the protagonists of the American story—the creators of its greatest and most original art, of its most inspiring heroes—were too few in number to succeed except by mobilizing broader coalitions. (Most Americans, surveys indicate, think that Black Americans make up something like a third of the population; the actual percentage is 13.6, and it was a couple of points lower in the early sixties.) The idea that Black Americans could act alone, Rustin believed, was a theatrical illusion.
Yet it is an enormous mistake to see Rustin as a cautious centrist. In 1966 he wrote a long essay in Commentary, then a journal of liberal debate, about Black Power and its discontents. The piece is not a lecture on the wrongheadedness of this movement; it is a somewhat impatient attempt to explain to white liberals why the movement has arisen. Rustin is passionate in his description of Black America’s frustrations, sufferings, and felt betrayals, and insistent that the path forward is through economic revolution. The futility of a separatist manifesto is, for Rustin, too self-evident to underline. When sncc and core went into the South, he wrote, “they awakened the country, but now they emerge isolated and demoralized, shouting a slogan”—Black Power—“that may afford a momentary satisfaction but that is calculated to destroy them and their movement.”
The cause for this demoralization, he went on, was a post-civil-rights-era stagnation that had set in: “The youths who rioted in Watts, Cleveland, Omaha, Chicago, and Portland are the members of a truly hopeless and lost generation. They can see the alien world of affluence unfold before them on the TV screen. But they have already failed in their inferior segregated schools. Their grandfathers were sharecroppers, their grandmothers were domestics, and their mothers are domestics too.” Rustin, the lifelong pacifist, saw Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael, then chairman of SNCC, as being out of touch in “their repeated exhortations to these young men to oppose the Vietnam war when so many of them tragically see it as their only way out.” He continued, “There is no need to labor the significance of the fact that the rice fields of Vietnam and the Green Berets have more to offer a Negro boy than the streets of Mississippi or the towns of Alabama or 125th Street in New York.” Yet to imagine that a dispersed minority could take up arms against someone unnamed to do something unknown was absurd, and also symptomatic of a deeper malaise. “It is up to the liberal movement to prove that coalition and integration are better alternatives,” he wrote, as true then as now.
The seeming dead end of Rustin’s politics after the height of the civil-rights movement has led the Marxist scholar Adolph L. Reed, Jr., an admirer, to see Rustin as an essentially tragic figure. It’s true that Rustin’s hopes for a New Deal-style working-class coalition within the Democratic Party were thwarted by changing cultural norms that were more powerful than shared class interests were. Rustin kept forlornly pushing a Randolph-authored plan for economic equality as an alternative to a narrower militancy. But when hard hats attacked antiwar protesters on Nixon’s behalf in 1970, the idea that Randolph’s plan for a rising minimum wage might save the day for solidarity seemed quaint. Big-city crime and, in some quarters, progressive hostility toward Israel broke the alliance that Rustin had so painstakingly assembled.
Yet Reed, a political scientist, also emphasizes how greatly conditions had altered. Apartheid in the South was being dismantled, and the U.S. was seeing the first rush of African American elected officials since the end of Reconstruction—Black power in fact if not in name. Indeed, we forget the scale of the gains because they were, in Rustin’s words, very concrete and exceedingly limited, as political change in a democracy tends to be. In 1963, George Wallace could cry “Segregation forever,” and in 1972 he could still contest the Democratic nomination. By 1976, he was roundly defeated in the South, in primary after primary, by a Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, running on a civil-rights platform.
Rustin’s last decade seems to have been personally fulfilling and politically lonely. He met the artist and photographer Walter Naegle in 1977, and they lived together openly in New York; at one point, Rustin actually adopted Naegle, as a way to formalize their tie in the absence of same-sex marriage. Yet his faith in progressive, coalitional change never altered. “We will win the rights for gays, or blacks, or Hispanics, or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all,” he said, at the height of the Reagan era, not long before his death, in 1987. “You have to all combine and fight a head-on battle—in the name of justice and equality—and even that’s going to be difficult.”
The principles that Rustin held steadfast, though they may seem unexciting in a political culture that loves romantic extremists, are nonetheless time-tested: Work within a coalition as broad as you can make it. Emphasize logistic efficiency. Relish the metaphoric imagination, but don’t let it run away with your judgment. Accept that perseverance is the best friend of freedom. Although utopianism and visionary overreach may be necessary beacons of freedom, they can, left to their own devices, become its betrayers.
Rustin’s legacy? It’s there in the new reverence with which his name is spoken, and it’s there in such places as the Bayard Rustin Center, in Princeton, an activist space devoted to his memory. It’s there in the person of Barack Obama—who gave Rustin the Medal of Freedom, posthumously, and who, with his wife, Michelle, produced the Rustin movie.
How you feel about Rustin’s legacy, in fact, turns, in large part, on how you feel about Obama’s Presidency. If you embrace the progressive insistence that his Presidency was in some way a disappointment—not enough big new programs, too temperate in rhetoric, with Trump and Trumpism the inevitable result—then you will see in Rustin’s program a template for electoral success and political failure. In this view, the institutionalism and proceduralism of Obama’s imagination, and his reluctance to engage in anything disruptive, failed to win over his enemies, who were only further enraged by his imperturbability, and left in ascendancy his most malign adversary.
If, on the other hand, you see Obama’s Presidency—with its creation of an expansive, pluralist liberal coalition that solved many problems, large and small, and its public functioning, which set a tone of decency that will not soon be surpassed—as the kind of guarded success that history allows democratic leaders, then you will see in Rustin’s program the template for political advancement.
To build coalitions is to embrace contradictions. The perpetual tragedy of leftist politics, in turn, is the complete inability to imagine the Other—not the near-at-hand Others of allies who marginally deviate from your views, or the fantasy Others of the working classes who would agree with you if they only understood that you were right, but the actual Other of religionists and ferocious ideological reactionaries who think that minimal programs for social equality are a form of personal theft. They get a vote, too. Rustin understood that the exhausting part of democratic politics is working within that reality, and that the alternative is to imagine a mono-ideological utopia—a fantasy even worse when made real.
Curiously, Rustin’s credo was once the consensus view of people who combined prudential sense with political principle, whether Albert Camus or Clement Attlee, George Orwell or Eleanor Roosevelt. They saw the authoritarianism of the right and the totalitarianism of the left as conjoined twins that had to be equally opposed. Moves toward economic equality, they agreed, were perfectly consistent with moves toward individual liberty: gay rights and social democracy were both plausible, and possible. Above all, they knew that the real work of politics is the work of choosing peanut butter over cheese, taking the thousand unglamorous steps that create progress.
Rustin’s example is full of contradictions—he was a man very much of the New Deal thirties who lived into the Nixon seventies and the Reagan eighties without seeing how much the times had been a-changing, for good and for ill. But the contradictions of our characters are what our characters are made of, just as the contradictions of democratic coalitions are not a temporary ill to be cured but an engine of difference to be embraced. Rustin had an imagination tempered by actual struggle in the streets, not just imaginative struggle in a studio. Accepting the inevitability of both kinds of contradictions, those within ourselves and those outside, is the work of the civilized imagination. Rustin made the energetic contradictions of coalition politics into an elegant doubleness all his own.
Source: Ocnus.net 2022