As much as any of the civil-rights giants, those of both the recent and distant past, Bayard Rustin was the leading apostle of coalition as well as field marshal and supreme tactician of the black struggle for racial equality. Eclectic perhaps in his theoretical positions--as a member of the Young Communist League in the early 1930s, to a pacifist who served in prison for draft resistance--his life was consecrated to the twin visions of nonviolence and the politics of coalition.
The range and depth of his intellectual vision as well as his longstanding identification with causes that could not be said to be exclusively “black” made him the major civil-rights leader with the smallest base within the black community. But just because he had no solid ties to any one black organization, he was in the ideal position to serve as broker and mediator as blacks struggled to break out of the social/economic/legal cul de sac in which they have historically been relegated.
It was the triumph of coalitional politics, the March on Washington of 1963, for which he is best known. Though Martin Luther King Jr. was surely the great prophet of the march and of the civil-rights movement--its Moses, if you will--Rustin was clearly its Joshua. And though the walls “didn’t come tumblin’ down,” they were certainly breeched by the torrent of civil-rights legislation that followed the tens of thousands who spilled over the Washington mall in August, 1963.
My own memories of Rustin date from the early 1960s. As a National Lawyers Guild attorney in its 1963 Mississippi Summer Project, I saw firsthand the fruits of coalitionism in which black and white (many if not most of them Jewish) lawyers represented a diverse group of students and workers who sought to register citizens to vote.
Rustin, with his ties to organized labor, clung to an integrationist vision despite massive blue-collar resistance to black advancement and widespread exclusion of blacks from semi-skilled trade unions. In Rustin’s view: “The trade-union movement was an indispensable part of that coalition which helped shape and achieve the New Deal . . . it is more integrated than our schools, our churches and American industry.”
Others, most notably Malcolm X, argued for a black-power strategy that stressed self-reliance and, at least in the early stages, separatism. The struggle between Malcolm and Rustin, waged in stimulating debates in the opening years of the 1960s, raised the intellectual and theoretical level of the argument about liberationist strategy to an intensity that until that time had been seldom equaled. Though I remember most the incisiveness and brilliance of Malcolm’s devastating critique of the national hypocrisy on race, I also remember Rustin’s view of Malcolm, whom he found to have “voice and words that were cathartic, channeling into militant verbiage emotions that otherwise might have run a violently destructive course.”
“But having described the evil, Malcolm had no program for attacking it,” Rustin said. “With rare skill and feeling he articulated angry subterranean moods more widespread than any of us like to admit. But having blown the trumpet, he could summon, even at the very end, only a handful of followers.”
Ironically, the same might be said of Rustin himself. In this he and Malcolm shared a similar fate. Both in their own ways expressed themes that have persisted in black thought. Both in the end, however, found themselves isolated from mass movements.
But if Malcolm represents the purist form of black self-consciousness, it is Rustin who increasingly came to reflect accommodationist thought that at times led to charges that he had abandoned the interests of his own people. Nonetheless, the idea that black progress is in part dependent on whites of good will has powerful precedence in black intellectual history --from Booker T. Washington through no less than Martin Luther King Jr.
Though the perspectives of both Rustin and Malcolm remain important, it is perhaps Rustin’s view that was most prophetic. For the growing isolation of blacks from mainstream America, symbolized by the triumph of Ronald Reagan in the face of overwhelming black opposition, suggests the importance of coalitions as a way of coming to grips with the racism that continues to isolate America’s minorities, especially blacks.
Perhaps the echo is faint, but in the recent conflict between Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan there is a reminder of the disagreements between Bayard Rustin and more militant blacks. Rustin, who spoke out of a tradition embraced by Bradley, said words that might well have been uttered by the mayor himself:
“Many civil-rights leaders and spokesmen, myself included, have firmly opposed extremism of both races, black as well as white. We have seen that racial extremism is self-defeating, that it divides blacks from natural allies in the white community, and that it undermines the central objective of building a coalition of progressive forces which can become the political majority in America. We have seen that until such a coalition exists, our nation will not undertake a comprehensive program to wipe out poverty among blacks, Mexican-Americans, Indians, Puerto Ricans and whites.”