Remembering Bayard Rustin
We need him—and his commitment to nonviolence and integration—more than ever.
The author of a recent New York Times article on Black heroes managed, remarkably, to mention both Bayard Rustin—protest strategist, intellectual, and humanitarian—and Huey Newton, the menacing, and many believe homicidal, founder of the Black Panthers. Bayard would probably have shrugged off the whole affair. Bayard was one of 20th-century America’s most remarkable figures. He is best known as a key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially as an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. More recently, Bayard has been recognized as a gay man who refused to deny his sexuality in an era in which homosexuals in public life lived in fear and stayed in the shadows.
I worked as a researcher for Bayard during the 1970s, when he was president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Nixon was in the White House, having triumphed in part by exploiting racial resentments. More, Nixon’s success coincided with a momentous struggle over the soul of the Democratic Party. The traditional party base—liberals, organized labor, urban machines, minorities—was under relentless challenge from forces inspired by the antiwar movement that demanded a drastic revision of America’s role in the world. Bayard was unhappy about the growing influence of the antiwar forces, who discounted liberal stalwarts like Hubert Humphrey and the leaders of organized labor as warmongers. In 1976 he actively supported the Senate primary campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a controversial figure because of his report on the state of the Black family—against prominent congressional leftist Bella Abzug.
At the same time, the commitment to principles like nonviolence and integration, which had inspired Dr. King, John Lewis, and other protest icons, had been challenged from within the civil rights community. The alternatives offered were variants of Black Power, from community self-defense, to the embrace of a pan-African identity, to a Black capitalism advocating self-sufficient Black communities. While each Black Power variant advocated its own path to empowerment and prosperity, all the varieties shared a rejection of integration and biracial politics.
Bayard rejected all these Black Power models. While he had couched his previous comments on separatism and racial nationalism in generalities and counsels of patience, his comments now became sharper. He named the names of the ideologues who he believed were retarding Black progress. In private conversations, he would dismiss their proposals with one word: “foolishness.”
Resolute in Dignity
During his pacifist years, Bayard had developed an expertise in the intricacies of nonviolent civil disobedience, applying the principles set out by Gandhi and others to the struggle to overthrow the Jim Crow regime in the South. But when Harlem political boss Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., threatened to circulate a fictitious story of a sexual relationship between King and Bayard, King, in one of the lowest moments of his career, capitulated. Bayard was exiled from close contact with him for several years.
Bayard responded with a dignified “no comment” whenever questions about his private life came up, but he never denied being gay. In 1963, when A. Philip Randolph named him as principal organizer of the March on Washington, a few civil rights leaders grumbled; and conservative politicians like Dixiecrat South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond railed about Bayard’s sexuality and radical past. Randolph, a man of uncompromising principle, stood his ground; and Bayard stayed put as an organizer of what still ranks as the most important protest action in modern American history.
As his role in the civil rights struggle grew, Bayard’s approach to political commitment evolved. He was convinced that civil rights strategy should move, as the title of his most famous essay put it, “from protest to politics.” Even as the civil rights movement scored victories, Bayard’s writings were suffused with apprehension triggered by the challenge of rising Black material expectations. He also understood that politics demanded compromises and trade-offs, necessities that some of his younger, more impatient civil rights comrades rejected.
America is a much different place from what it was during the years when Bayard organized protests and wrote his influential essays. True, there have been changes worth celebrating; still, most notable in light of Bayard’s analysis of the challenges of the post-civil rights period is the disintegration of the working class, with increased inequality and a narrowed path to upward mobility for working people of all races. The march to the middle class has been arduous and often disappointing.
Bayard died in 1987. He was spared the polarization, duplicity, collapse of institutional authority, and assault on democratic standards that have defined American politics in recent years. But in the late 1960s he endured a different kind of political crisis, one marked by a raw hatred even more widespread, deadly, and frightening than what America has experienced over the past year. National Guardsmen patrolled the streets of major cities. Armed Black self-defense groups kept watch over neighborhoods. White vigilantes combed the streets in search of Black targets. Police operated with few restraints on violent tactics. George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign elevated the politics of backlash and prejudice to the national stage; his segregationist appeal threatened the Democratic Party’s hold on its blue-collar base.
Passion Guided by Principle
Today it is noteworthy to see how many of the principles that guided Bayard’s work as organizer, intellectual, and protest leader remain thoroughly relevant, even a source of passionate debate. Here are just a few:
Protest protocols: Experience had taught Bayard that protests, to be successful, had to both inspire the aggrieved group and win the support of the majority—or at least a substantial minority—of the broader public. He also believed that protests should reassure potential allies and avoid raising questions about the protestors’ commitment to democratic values. That meant no cursing or spitting; no frozen water bottles or Molotov cocktails; no assaults on buildings or businesses. Indeed, those who organized a protest had a responsibility for guarding the safety of protestors and keeping order. He also believed that protest should include specific demands, what today would be called “asks.” They could be local or national but had to be within the realm of the possible.
The police and black communities: During the 1970s, crime rates in Black neighborhoods, including those in New York, were on a sharp upswing. So were clashes between police and public. Bayard would have been appalled by the current surge in incarceration, the distressingly long sentences, the prosecution of younger and younger teenagers as adults, the increased resort to solitary confinement. But whenever Black audiences asked him about police violence, he invariably responded that, “Black people need good policing more than anyone.”
Bayard was especially concerned about what the future held for Black boys. He was no fan of big-time sports. While he understood why Black boys were obsessed with basketball, he feared that hours spent on the court were hours not spent on the kind of learning that the jobs of the future demanded. He also understood that technology’s advance posed a powerful threat to middle-class, blue-collar jobs. That was even more reason, he concluded, to focus on education as the critical instrument of racial advancement. He had a dim opinion of Black Studies, then emerging as a popular field of study. The area, he worried, would become a forum for racial cheerleading rather than critical thought.
The universality of human rights: Earlier in his life, Bayard traveled to Africa to assist the forces pressing for independence. He believed that colonialism was doomed and there was reason to anticipate that post-colonial rulers would opt for democracy and civil liberties.
By the 1970s, Bayard viewed African developments with a critical eye and sometimes alarm: It was clear that some of the original liberation leaders, like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré, were animated by dreams of unchecked power and lifetime rule. Some younger leaders, like Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, were worse.
In the United States, young Blacks who had participated in civil rights protest were largely disinclined to speak out against African repression and kleptocracy. Bayard regarded their refusal to take a stand on African politics as an evasion of responsibility. He strongly believed that Africans who had suffered under colonialism should not now be subjected to the whims of African autocrats, and he felt that the veterans of American protest campaigns, because of their credibility as participants in the civil rights struggle, had a special obligation to speak out on oppression in Africa.
Dissidents international: During the 1970s, Bayard became increasingly active with the International Rescue Committee, a leading advocate for asylum seekers, refugees, and political dissidents. He got to know political refugees from across the geographic and ideological spectrum. He believed that the United States, as a beacon of freedom and a participant in triggering refugee flows, had a special responsibility toward those whose lives had been turned upside down by war and persecution. He once said, “If our government lacks compassion for these dispossessed human beings, it is difficult to believe that the same government can have much compassion for America’s Black minority, or for America’s poor.” Bayard was also an active member of Freedom House, which he used as a base for fact-finding missions to South Africa and post-apartheid Zimbabwe as well as for campaigns to free jailed Soviet dissidents and support the new Solidarity trade union in Poland.
Bayard was a resolute supporter of Israel, a position that put him at odds with both his own pacifist principles and left-wing activists who regarded the Palestine Liberation Organization a legitimate liberation movement. Even before the Six-Day War, some outspoken Black Americans, most notably Malcolm X, gave vocal support to armed Palestinian groups. But Bayard laid the problems of the Middle East squarely at the feet of the monarchs and dictators who brutalized the Arab people—he referred to some of them as “proto-fascist”—and who resented Israel as the region’s lone democracy and, thus, a living rebuke to their own despotic regimes. After the UN General Assembly adopted the notorious “Zionism Is Racism” resolution in 1975, Bayard organized a committee of Black leaders to support the Jewish state.
Tribalism: Because of his extensive international experience, Bayard was sensitive to divisions over race, tribe, and caste everywhere. He understood that race consciousness here was inevitable as part of the Black struggle for full citizenship but was skeptical that race consciousness would contribute to material progress.
More, he was mistrustful of policies meant to divide goods along group lines; he preferred old-fashioned social democratic strategies based on the premise that economic growth lifting all boats could be accompanied by policies meant to direct benefits to those most in need.
Bayard was struck by the way that identity-based laws and policies in Asian societies like India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia were either explicitly meant to benefit majority groups or, if designed to benefit lower castes, invariably failed to eliminate caste consciousness. He was not enthusiastic about the United States embarking on a similar course. Bayard did not use the term “racism” indiscriminately. When he applied terms of opprobrium like prejudice, bigotry, and, in the worst case, racism, he was a traditionalist: He tried to be precise.
Throughout his life, Bayard used democracy’s full array of possibilities for expanding human freedom. He believed in both the power of collective action and the indispensability of self-emancipation. He challenged orthodoxies when he concluded that they had outlived their usefulness and rebuffed unsound ideas even when doing so cost him the support of friends and admirers. It is encouraging that a new generation has begun to pay tribute to Bayard’s example, even to elevate him to the pantheon of America’s heroes. The next step should be a sober effort to grapple with the convictions about race and democracy that distinguished Bayard’s career, set him apart from others, and established a standard for honesty and fortitude that was unusually high in his era and much needed in ours.
Arch Puddington was research director for the A. Philip Randolph Institute from 1971 to 1976. He has written widely on civil rights, labor, and global democracy, and is author of the Freedom House Special Report, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017).
Originally published July 12, 2021, at 12:00 pm.
Photograph by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer Stanley Wolfson. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1305642
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