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What We Keep Fighting For

What We Keep Fighting For

It’s important to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. And Bayard Rustin’s.

Jeffrey Gedmin

I’m rereading Arch Puddington’s excellent essay of two years ago in American Purpose on Bayard Rustin. Rustin was remarkable as influential civil rights leader, passionate advocate for nonviolence and integration, and key adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday is Martin Luther King Day and American Purpose will be off in recognition of it.

Arch worked for Rustin as a researcher in the 1970s. Republican Richard Nixon, an exploiter of grievance and racial resentments, was president. Many in the Democratic Party insisted America turn inward and away from the world. In 1976, Rustin supported Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate campaign. As UN ambassador, Moynihan had shown deep commitment to internationalism and democracy. History doesn’t repeat itself, said Mark Twain, but it rhymes. Our colleague Suzi Garment, American Purpose senior editor, worked for Moynihan.

Rustin and Moynihan were both interested in human rights in the Soviet Union. I’m rereading Natan Sharansky’s prison memoir Fear No Evil. Sharansky has a birthday coming up—he was born on January 20, 1948, in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. It was in winter 1977 that Sharansky was abducted from a friend’s apartment on Gorky Street. A dozen KGB agents were dispatched to transfer the diminutive (five foot, three inches) twenty-nine-year-old human rights activist to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. Sharansky was charged with high treason and sentenced to thirteen years in a labor camp.

At the time of Sharansky’s arrest, Vladimir Putin was a twenty-four-year-old KGB agent working undercover as a police detective in Leningrad. He was already fascinated by the idea, he’d later recount, of “how a single intelligence officer could rule over the fates of thousands of people.” 

I’m back with American Purpose after a six-month stint in Prague as interim president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In the fall, there were important managerial tasks: budget process, a division restructuring, Czech trade union negotiations, end-of-year evaluations, preparations for two potential U.S. government shutdowns. Supported by $146 million in congressionally appropriated funds, RFE/RL produces world-class journalism and first-rate analysis across all media platforms in twenty-seven languages with bureaus in twenty-one countries. You don’t do any of this without superb operations and an outstanding senior leadership team. I’m indebted. And inspired.

RFE/RL journalists are on the front line, again, and this spells considerable sacrifice and risk across Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. South of Herat, we had a colleague picked up by the Taliban for hanging out in a forbidden cafe where men had tried to drink tea and play cards. 

In this authoritarian moment, regimes are becoming increasingly strict and brazen. Russian and Iranian agents track exiled journalists across Europe. RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters was rocked this fall by a mysterious death in Current Time, the Russian-language television and digital network, and by an ensuing homicide investigation. The company currently has four behind bars in Belarus, one in Russian-occupied Crimea, and two in Russia proper. There’s almost certainly more to come. The Ukrainian staff work under tremendous pressure. This past fall, an RFE/RL female reporter, cameraman, and driver were nearly killed in an air attack in the midst of interviews not far the front. They helped to administer first aid to badly wounded military personnel.

Russia’s president has been collecting American hostages. Two are journalists—the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich and RFE/RL’s Alsu Kurmasheva. I thought to reread Sharansky as we worked on Alsu’s case. Alsu’s editor said to me, “Remember, this is the one thing the Kremlin does well and there’s a playbook.” It’s cruel. Alsu is the mother of two young children. She went home last summer on a private trip to visit her frail and elderly mother.

Predators like easy prey, I suppose. Chilling is the clinical approach used to wear people down mentally and physically. Sharansky’s first interrogator at Lefortovo—Evan is in Lefortovo; Alsu is five hundred miles east in a detention facility in Kazan—was a KGB colonel named Galkin, a small elderly man with glasses who told Sharansky with a smile, “We shall be working together.” Sharansky was freed nine years later in a prisoner swap. 

Natan Sharansky will be in Washington at the end of this month. We’ve invited Natan to speak to an American Purpose gathering. 

I’m eager to share more about Alsu’s case, my stint at RFE/RL, and American Purpose plans for 2024. Look for a notice soon about a virtual discussion and in-person salon in Washington. Carolyn Stewart and the entire American Purpose team have done a truly splendid job these last months. I find myself again indebted and inspired.

On Monday, we pay tribute to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s important to remember King’s legacy. And Rustin’s. It’s a good time to remind ourselves of all we’re still fighting for. 

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. He’s a member of the RFE/RL board and a Senate-confirmed member of the International Broadcasting Advisory Board.

Image: Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Credit: Photo by Monroe Frederick, courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin.

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