Bayard Rustin and “From Protest to Politics”

August 28, 2013 By Josh Steichmann

Bayard Rustin From Protest to PoliticsIn February 1965, Bayard Rustin wrote an essay for the magazine Commentary, titled “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement“.

In it, he argues that the work of desegregating lunch counters, hotels, swimming pools and libraries was peripheral to the broader Civil Rights Movement. “Without making light of the human sacrifices involved in the direct-action tactics … that were so instrumental to this achievement,” the protests, hit “Jim Crow precisely where it was most anachronistic, dispensable, and vulnerable.” The real challenge would be to shift the institutional and structural impediments to full equality. “What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them?” Rustin asked.

Rustin was not an outside critic of the Civil Rights movement; rather, Rustin was part of the core whose protests had been so instrumental to dismantling Jim Crow. He was the main organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose 50th anniversary we celebrate today. He convinced Dr. Martin Luther King jr. to speak last, knowing his, “I Have a Dream” speech would be an indelible vision of equality. Rustin was the person who introduced King to Gandhi’s non-violent tactics, and was an organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. His pamphlet on the march remains a classic of organizing literature.

But Rustin has always had a broader vision for America than just ending racial segregation. He was a proudly gay man in a time when it was still illegal, a pacifist who was jailed for his opposition to World War II (he simultaneously protested the war and the inability of African Americans to serve equally with white soldiers). And throughout his life, he remained committed to a vision of economic equality as the primary engine of achieving all other kinds of equality.

His complicated political philosophies made him a complex figure, one who was forced out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960 by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell jr., who threatened to spread rumors of a gay affair between Rustin and King, but who supported Powell when he was unconstitutionally denied his congressional seat. Invited back by King in 1963, when A. Phillip Randolph tapped Rustin to organize the March on Washington, Sen. Jesse Helms read Rustin’s arrest record for “sexual perversion” (really a morals charge after Rustin was caught with two men in a car in Pasadena) into the congressional record, but King knew Rustin was too crucial to abandon again.

That doesn’t mean Rustin always agreed with King. Presaged in his “From Protest to Politics” essay, Rustin criticized King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” as more spectacle than an effective strategy to reduce poverty. Similarly, he denounced Black Nationalism as a caustic distraction from the real work of economic justice for African Americans, which Rustin believed was rooted in the conservative notions of self-help. He decries militantism, saying, “Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed.”

While Rustin decries radicalism in rhetoric, he embraces the idea of radical goals, a revolutionary restructuring of America after which no one can declare it the same. But he sees that revolution as coming through the slow process of political power in coalition.

“Neither that movement nor the country’s twenty million black people can win political power alone. We need allies,” said 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.”

Rustin’s prescriptions have contemporary relevance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement as well, especially in California. Most obviously, the freedom to marry is now and will remain the law in California, and LGBT people already have broad protections in housing, employment and education. (This would have been a boon to Rustin; he was forced to adopt his longterm partner Walter Naegle in order to provide him with survivor benefits.)

This isn’t to say that full equality has been achieved — far from it. But the struggles still facing the LGBT community, from health disparities and an epidemic of bullying to the grinding poverty that characterizes too much of everyday LGBT life (and too little of positive LGBT media portrayals), require not just marches and individual protest, but real, deep political organizing in a broad coalition. Very few of the issues facing the LGBT community are LGBT issues solely, but rather issues of intersectionality and institutional inequality. Finding a meaningful solution to the disproportionate number of LGBT people living in poverty means working against poverty broadly; fixing America’s broken immigration system means recognizing the commonality of the LGBT and undocumented communities; integrating transgender people fully means more than giving equal access, it means building institutional support to enforce rights.

As Rustin said, “But the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones. The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense.”

It is vital to remember Rustin on today of all days, but it is equally vital to understand how the architect of many of America’s most successful protests called for moving beyond protest to politics. Doing so not only honors our shared history, but also provides a vision for the full equality of the future.

For more on Rustin’s life and legacy:

An Interview With Walter Naegle, Rustin’s Partner.
The Black Gay Pacifist Mastermind of the March on Washington is Only now Getting his Due.
What Would Bayard Rustin do Now?.
The Real Genius Behind the Movement is Only now Getting Credit.
Bayard Rustin was Crucial to the Movement.
Rustin and the Dead End of Despair (PDF).
Excerpt of Bayard Rustin’s FBI files.

One Response to “Bayard Rustin and “From Protest to Politics””

August 28, 2013 at 2:36 pm, George said: Great job!!! Thanks.

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