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The Rebel Who Came In From the Cold: The Tainted Career of Bayard Rustin
Saturday, March 12, 2016
In 2013, Bayard Rustin, who died in 1987, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, along with Bill Clinton and others. On that occasion progressive radio and television journalist Amy Goodman devoted part of her syndicated broadcast, Democracy Now!, to Rustin's life and legacy. She introduced Rustin as "a minority within a minority, who tirelessly agitated for change, spending nights, days and weeks in jail opposing US policy at home and abroad-a gay man fighting against homophobia, and a pacifist fighting against endless war."
A guest on the program was John D'Emilio, who writes in the introduction to his 2003 biography, Lost Prophet that Rustin:
wished more than anything else to remake the world around him. He wanted to shift the balance between white supremacy and racial justice, between violence and cooperation in the conduct of nations, between the wealth and power of the few and poverty and powerlessness of the many.
A widely acclaimed documentary chronicling Rustin's career, Brother Outsider, by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer (2003), also celebrates Rustin as a forgotten hero and visionary of the civil rights and peace movements. This high praise is certainly warranted in relation to the earlier parts of Rustin's life. But, as we shall see, such encomiums either leave out or tend to downplay the far less laudatory later chapters of his biography.
Young, Black and Angry
Although never a campaigner for homosexual rights, Rustin was unapologetically gay in private life, several times hitting back against the attempts of politicians - from Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond to black Democratic congressman Adam Clayton Powell -- to slime him for his sexual orientation. He was also a determined anti-racist fighter from an early age. He first protested against racial segregation as a high school student in his native Westchester, Pennsylvania, where he refused to sit in the balcony reserved exclusively for blacks in a movie theater. He went on briefly to join the Young Communist League in his adopted home of New York City. He was active in the CP-led campaign to free the nine Scottsboro Boys, falsely accused of rape and sentenced to die in Alabama's electric chair. Rustin became disillusioned with the CP when it downplayed civil rights agitation after Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, on the rationale that fighting for black rights would hinder the American war effort.
Rustin then fell under the influence of the radical clergyman A. J. Muste, who headed the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and of the American Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. His chief mentor soon became the black Socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Rustin at this time became a principled pacifist, dedicated to a Gandhian philosophy of non-violent agitation for social change. He spent nearly two years in federal prison during World War II for refusing, as a conscientious objector, to serve in the army.
Rustin was also a founder of the civil rights movement. He headed an early version of the Freedom Rides to protest southern Jim Crow laws in 1947, and refused to take his appointed seat on a segregated bus in North Carolina eight years before Rosa Parks did the same in Alabama. For this offense, he did twenty-one days on a chain gang. Rustin helped Martin Luther King to organize northern support for the Birmingham bus boycott in 1956. In an era of near-universal homophobia, King became nervous about being publicly associated with Rustin due to the latter's earlier arrest on a "morals" charge in California (he was discovered performing oral sex in the back seat of a car), and for a time took his distance, relegating Rustin to a much less visible background role in the movement. But Rustin and King came together once again for the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. Rustin was the leading organizer of that quarter-million-strong outpouring for racial and economic justice. The march is widely regarded as the crowning achievement in the career of a black leader of exemplary dedication and self-sacrifice, of formidable intellectual and oratorical gifts, and organizing skills unmatched by anyone in the civil rights struggle.
It is the years up to and including 1963 that the devotees of Rustin's memory prefer to emphasize. We would, however, be unfaithful to the historical record if we were to ignore a less uplifting sequel. From the time that the administration of Lyndon Johnson embraced major parts of the civil rights agenda, Rustin pursued and increasingly rightward trajectory. The principled pacifist ended up supporting (with occasional qualms) the Vietnam War and promoted the intensification of the nuclear arms race; the champion of black rights apologized for the intervention of the South African apartheid régime in the Angolan civil war in the 1970s. It can be said without exaggeration that Rustin ended his life as a neo-conservative.
To understand this transformation, it is necessary to introduce a figure absent from Amy Goodman's tribute and Brother Outsider, and mentioned in only a few lines of D'Emilio's biography. His name was Max Shachtman.
A writer, speaker and politician of great energy and outstanding gifts, Shachtman first came to prominence on the American left as a follower of Leon Trotsky. He broke with Trotsky, however, in 1940 over the question of whether the Socialist Workers Party (the American Trotskyist group) should continue to defend the Soviet Union in the wake of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Trotsky argued that the USSR was worthy of defense despite the pact and horrors of Stalinism. Shachtman, on the other hand, maintained what he called a third-camp position, equidistant from Stalinist totalitarianism and western imperialism.
Yet Shachtman did not remain for very long in the third camp. Throughout the 40s and 50s, he moved steadily to the right, ultimately coming to see Stalinism as the greater evil, and adopting an increasingly friendly attitude toward the US and its cold war allies. On the home front, Shachtman concluded, after unsuccessful attempts to organize socialist groups independent of the two major parties, that the Democratic Party was the main arena in which socialists should work. Within the party itself, he looked to labor officialdom -- at first in the person of the head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther -- as the principal vehicle of the leftward Democratic realignment that he proclaimed as his objective. But opposing groupings within the Democratic Party and AFL-CIO fell out over the Vietnam War in the 1960s, resulting in the temporary departure of Reuther and the UAW from the labor federation to protest the leadership's support for the war. Shachtman, on the other hand, cast his lot with organized labor's pro-war right wing, headed by George Meany, and with the Democratic Party mainstream of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.
Rustin was Shachtman's main liaison with the civil rights movement, and , along with his aging mentor, A. Philip Randolph, followed a political path that coincided in all major respects with that of Shachtman. Rustin's admirers can hardly ignore his pro-establishment drift, but tend to portray it as a pragmatic decision to remain silent on Vietnam in order not to jeopardize his civil rights and social welfare agenda. But Rustin did not merely fail to speak out against the war. He was also extremely vociferous when it came to condemning the Black Power movement, anti-war mobilizations and the New Left.
The watershed moment in Rustin's career occurred at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The convention took place during the Freedom Summer, when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was mounting an intensive voter registration drive in the South, in the course of which three civil rights workers -- Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney -- met their deaths at the hands of Mississippi racist vigilantes, acting in collaboration with local police. The newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) elected a group of delegates to Atlantic City to challenge the credentials of the regular all-white delegation, which had been selected by a process barred to blacks. As the devastating testimony before the credentials committee of Fannie Lou Hamer, a middle-aged black sharecropper, concerning the reign of terror against black people in her state, was broadcast on national television, Lyndon Johnson scrambled to make the MFDP challenge disappear. Johnson continually invoked the bogey of a victory of his far-right opponent, Barry Goldwater, in the November elections to bring MFDP sympathizers into line. His two principal lieutenants in this fight were future vice-president Hubert Humphrey, and UAW chief Walter Reuther. (In taped phone conversations that have recently become public, we can hear Johnson handing out marching orders in his almost daily phone calls to Reuther, and the auto workers' president responding with fulsome flattery.)
Finally, the challengers were offered a compromise under which the state's full Jim Crow delegation would be seated at the convention, and the MFDP would be apportioned two at-large delegates, not self-selected but handpicked by the Democratic leadership-a move designed to keep Hamer from speaking on the convention floor. The Johnson team pulled out all stops to force upon the MFDP an offer that most members of the delegation deemed a betrayal of their purpose. Reuther made a point of telling the MFDP legal counsel, Joseph Rauh, that his firm's principal client, the UAW, would take its business elsewhere if he did not join in urging the compromise upon the MFDP. Rauh capitulated, but failed to persuade the delegation, which ultimately rejected Johnson's offer. During protracted and stormy debates among the delegates, it soon became apparent that the president's men had another important ally, Bayard Rustin, who strenuously urged acceptance. In exasperation, one SNCC member shouted, "You're a traitor, Bayard!"
In an article, "From Protest to Politics", in Commentary the following February, Rustin laid out the main lines of a political approach that was to separate him from the radicalism that emerged from the civil rights movement in response to the freedom summer and disillusionment with the Democrats. Rustin argued that the main barriers to black progress in the future would consist less of legal discrimination than economic disadvantage. The remedies-jobs programs, housing construction and aid to education-could not be obtained by the confrontational tactics - like lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides - employed to fight de jure segregation. They rather required large-scale intervention on the part of the federal government. The main force favoring such things was organized labor, and the principal tactic was pressure within the Democratic Party to expand Johnson's War on Poverty and break with the Dixiecrats. It never seems to have entered Rustin's mind that the fight for economic equality might, like the struggle against segregation, be driven forward by non-electoral means, such as King hoped to employ in the Poor People's Campaign he was planning at the time of his assassination. There was also no mention at all of the firestorm that was consuming government funds initially earmarked for the War on Poverty, and driving the country's youth, black and white, in ever-growing numbers away from the Democratic Party: the war in Vietnam. Along with the civil rights bills that Johnson pushed through Congress, he also introduced the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, authorizing what was soon to become a massive aerial assault on North Vietnam.
The Test of Vietnam
Rustin was aware that he could only remain on the fair-weather side of the political coalition to which he had hitched his wagon by dissociating himself from anyone in the emerging anti-war movement whose differences with the Johnson administration transgressed its fundamental cold-war framework. Thus, when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issued a call for an anti-war demonstration in Washington in the spring of 1965, and welcomed all who opposed the war, Rustin and his co-thinkers instantly understood that such a non-exclusionary policy would allow the participation of groups that were calling for the total and immediate withdrawal of US troops, not to mention those who openly supported the victory of the Viet Cong. Rustin thus added his voice to the anti-SDS red baiting chorus that preceded what turned out to be a march whose attendance of 25,000 greatly exceeded the expectations of organizers, and inaugurated the era of mass anti-war demonstrations. Rustin's signature appeared along with those of Socialist Party head Norman Thomas and A.J. Muste on a statement warning people away from the march. According to Kirkpatrick Sale in his history of SDS, ".this group managed to get the New York Post to run a prominent editorial on the very eve of the march featuring this statement and going on to issue warnings about `attempts to convert the event into a pro-Communist production' and `a frenzied, one-sided anti-American show.' "  Rustin's position on the march led to a rift with two other anti-war pacifists with whom he co-edited Liberation magazine, Dave Dellinger and Staughton Lynd. In an article in the magazine, Lynd accused Rustin of advocating a "coalition with the marines." Rustin resigned from the editorial board shortly thereafter.
It was not a betrayal of Rustin's integrationist and pacifist principles to oppose those sections of the radicalizing black movements of the 60s that rejected non-violence and embraced one or another variety of black separatism. Rustin famously debated Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. But Rustin also proved to be a determined foe of the efforts of even those who espoused nonviolence and racially integrated struggle-such as that advocated by Martin Luther King and his close adviser, James Bevel-against the Vietnam War. When in 1967, King made the momentous decision to speak out against the war at Riverside Church in New York City and join an anti-war march at the United Nations, Rustin was prominent among those who urged King against taking this step. Apparently, the famous photograph that weighed so heavily in King's decision - of a young girl running from a US-torched Vietnamese village, her face contorted with pain and her naked body seared with napalm-did not have a similar effect on Rustin.
As the Vietnam war loosened the grip of anti-Communist ideology, and the student and minority movements of the 60s became increasingly radicalized, several "democratic socialists" who had previously operated within the cold-war framework - such as Michael Harrington and Norman Thomas - expressed some misgivings about their political past. Bayard Rustin was not among them. In the final decades of his life, he moved even further to the right. As early as 1966, he had joined Norman Thomas in the Committee on Free Elections in the Dominican Republic, a CIA front group aimed at legitimizing rigged elections in 1966 to prevent the return to office of Juan Bosch, a reformist president effectively ousted by the invasion of 42,000 US troops in the previous year.
By this time, Rustin had become co-director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, funded mainly by George Meany and the AFL-CIO leadership, and an election monitor for Freedom House. In 1972 he became a co-chairman of the virulently anti-Communist Social Democrats, USA, previously headed by Max Shachtman. In 1976, he joined with Paul Nitze to found the Committee on the Present Danger, which advocated a nuclear arms buildup against the USSR. He was a fervent supporter of Israel and a regular contributor to Commentarymagazine, edited by one of the founders of neo-conservatism, Norman Podhoretz.
Anyone who doubts just how far to the right Rustin had moved would do well to have a look at an article that appeared in the Commentary of October, 1978, which he co-authored with future Reagan appointee, Carl Gershman. Entitled "Africa, Soviet Imperialism and the Retreat of American Power", the article blasts the Carter administration for taking a complacent attitude toward the Soviet and Cuban aid to the People's Front for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which had led the independence struggle against Portugal. They argued that Carter, paralyzed by the Vietnam syndrome and fearful of undermining détente, was allowing the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in Africa, and urged greater aid to the anti-Soviet UNITA. Headed by Jonas Savimbi, UNITA guerillas had posed as independence fighters while secretly colluding with the Portuguese. Rustin and Gershman had this to say about the fact that UNITA was also aided by a South African intervention force:
And if a South African force did intervene at the urging of black leaders. to counter a non-African army of Cubans ten times its size, by what standard of political judgment is this immoral?
The authors also worry lest the administration become overly fixated on the rights of the black African majority:
...the suppression of blacks by whites is not the only human rights issue in Africa. Virtually all governments in Africa are undemocratic to one degree or another, but nowhere does democracy have less chance of evolving than in the kind of totalitarian party dictatorships which the Soviet Union is in the process of trying to implant in Africa. Not to resist this development, but to concentrate solely on the black-white problem, undermines the moral credibility of the administration.
We see in this passage an early formulation of the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian régimes, popularized by Reagan's UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, as a rationale for supporting the Nicaraguan contras and the death-squad government of El Salvador (which Kirkpatrick said was only authoritarian, as opposed to Communist-totalitarian). This article is unmentioned in D'Emilio's biography.
Principles of Convenience
It is easy to determine if one is acting on principle when doing so entails defying the established order and enduring the kind of sacrifice and marginalization that Rustin experienced in his younger years. However, when one's principles happen to coincide with those of the powerful, and their espousal confers status and material rewards, disentangling the threads of opportunism from those of genuine belief becomes a lot harder. Admirers point out that, even in his later years, Rustin maintained a strong commitment to racial justice and social equality. And his political thinking did display a certain internal logic: if "Communist totalitarianism" was worse than western racism or imperialism, one could conclude that the latter should be supported as the lesser evil. Rustin's final neo-conservatism indeed represented the end-point in the evolution of a definite strand of social-democratic thought and practice, represented above all by Max Shachtman and his Social Democrats, USA.
Yet it is also not unfair to say that this political tendency epitomized the devil's bargain offered up by the more liberal and enlightened custodians of the American empire in its heyday: a certain commitment to social reform at home in exchange for support of the global régime of private property, and its defense against all those forces that seriously threatened it, be they Stalinist governments, left-nationalist reformers, or national liberation movements-all conveniently amalgamated under the rubric of the "Communist menace." It was this devil's deal that Shachtman and Rustin embraced with both arms. For them, the coups that toppled nationalist reformers like Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, or Bosch in the Dominican Republic because they threatened to nationalize US corporate property; the massacre of an estimated million Indonesians who supported the Sukarno government and the Communist Party, or the hecatombs of Vietnam, were not too heavy a price to pay for the passage of a civil rights bill or the funding of a government anti-poverty program. Their politics were, in the end, virtually indistinguishable from those of the so-called Scoop Jackson Democrats, named after the Democratic senator from Washington State (aka the "senator from Boeing"), who favored both the welfare state at home and militarism abroad. Moreover, they stood by the bargain they had made even as it was becoming increasingly apparent that the US government was having difficulty delivering guns and butter at the same time, and would opt for the former when it came time to choose.
It would also be much easier to ascribe the politics of Rustin's twilight-years to belief alone if there had been no perks or material rewards-no rides in Hubert Humphrey's limousine, no White House visits, no honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard, and, above all, no reliance on regular paychecks from George Meany and the AFL-CIO to fund the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which Rustin directed. Perhaps he was able to preserve some shred of self-respect from his radical past with the knowledge that-unlike Norman Thomas and others who were paid directly by the CIA-he supported the Cold War out of continuing loyalty to the labor movement (read: the right wing of the trade-union bureaucracy). But regardless of where the money came from, the politics it underwrote were the same.
Even John D'Emilio, Rustin's sympathetic biographer, strongly suggests the existence of an implicit quid pro quo:
...George Meany, always a cold warrior, made support for the president an undebatable proposition within the AFL-CIO. Had Rustin become too strongly identified with anti-war forces, there was a risk he might have lost funding for the Randolph Institute.
And further on:
George Houser, who had worked closely with Rustin. thought he "just made a practical decision that, `if I'm going to survive in this world, then I have got to play a different game, because there's no place for me in just maintaining contact with a small radical group. How do I manage myself?' I think he made a conscious decision about that." 
Shizu Ashai Proctor, a former FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation] secretary whom Rustin had thoroughly captivated in the 1940s, ran into him on a subway platform in Manhattan. She hadn't seen him in many years but had followed his career. Talking about old times and commenting on his current circumstances, Rustin made a comment that, almost three decades later, remained engraved in her memory. "You get tired after a while," he told her, "and you have to come home to something you can count on." Well into his fifties at the time of this encounter, Rustin had experienced a lifetime on the margins. The Randolph Institute provided a secure political home, allowed a considerable measure of autonomy, and gave him the opportunity to express his prodigious energies. As America began to spin out of control because of the passions unleashed by the war, Rustin chose to set himself firmly on a particular ground, and he never reconsidered.
If one were to limit the definition of "selling out" to the drawing up of an explicit contract stipulating the exchange of political utterances and actions "x" in exchange for perks and sums of money "y", one would be hard put to find any examples of selling out in the entire history of the left. Political shifts are almost invariably accompanied by professed changes of belief. The fact, however, that some views will lead to federal prison and the chain gang, while others to the portals of power and a steady meal ticket is a distinction that should not be overlooked in attempting to dissect the motives of historical figures. As a man who fought black oppression and suffered as a gay, Rustin appears to many contemporary progressives as an attractive figure. And while his later choices should not prevent us from appreciating his genuine contributions, neither should these choices be allowed to slip down a memory hole in any rush to celebrate unsung heroes. One can easily understand why Barack Obama views Bayard Rustin as an exemplary civil rights leader. We on the left, however, should examine the past with a far more critical eye.
1. John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet (Chicago, 2003), p.2
2. Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire (New York, 1998), p.473
3. Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York, 1974), p. 179
4. John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet, (Chicago, 2003), p. 447
5. Ibid., p.447
6. Ibid., Pp. 447-448
Jim Creegan was chairman of the Penn State chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, lectured in philosophy in the 70s, he was a union shop steward during the late 80s and 90s. He lives in New York City, now unaffiliated but unresigned. His writings often appear in the Weekly Worker (UK) .
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