Thursday, October 26, 2006


Bayard Rustin--Giant with Feet of Clay

Recently, I was doing some research for a friend on Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a multi-talented man and one of the greatest grassroots organizers and advocates of nonviolent direct action in this country's history but he was a giant with feet of clay.

It seems to me that too often people are disheartened when they learn about the flaws of a personal hero but I think such knowledge should be reassuring. We don't have to be perfect to work in important struggles or try to do great things. Imperfect people can work for justice, too; indeed, we're the only ones who can.

So, I'm going to dish some dirt on Bayard Rustin because I think we can learn from both the powerful positive example of Rustin's life and from his negative example, too. Rustin was in the thick of many important social movement in the US in the last century and what he did or did not do tells us a lot not just about Rustin but about those movements. A final lesson is that we must be on guard for our own blind spots.

This isn't going to be an exhaustive list and it won't include some of the faults others find with him. To me, the three most outstanding flaws in Rustin were his sexism, his support for Zionism, and his internalized homophobia, which I can hardly fault him for, except that it lasted so long--after Stonewall, even--and in at least one instance it was directed at someone else.

Rustin was the main organizer for the August 28, 1963, March on Washington but he sidelined women. The meeting mentioned below was the first major planning meeting after all the mainline civil rights organization had signed on. Daniel Levine writes:
[O]n July 2, at a luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, the "Big Six"--Randolph, King, John Lewis from SNCC, Whitney Young from the National Urban League, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins--met. Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women was not at that meeting. The NCNW was listed in the New York Times article as one of the original sponsoring organizations. The stationery of the march, however, did not list it. The addition of the National Council of Negro Women, as an afterthought, was typical of the whole march effort. It was as though the organizers came to the thought "Oh, we mustn't neglect the women." But they were not included as fellow planners or, as it turned out, as speakers at the march itself. ...[1]

A dozen days before the march, Randolph received letters from Anna Arnold Hedgeman, on the board of the SCLC and a member of the administrative committee of the March on Washington, pointing out that women were not being recognized. In response, Randolph, or maybe Bayard, suggested to the ten speakers that since they "were all men and since it is imperative that the role of women in the struggle be made clear, " important women should be invited to participate. Randolph suggested Rosa Parks, Mrs. Medgar Evers, Mrs. Daisy Bates, Mrs. Gloria Richardson, Mrs. Diane Nash Bevel. "The difficulty of finding a single woman to speak without causing serious problems vis-a-vis other women and woman's groups suggests ... that the chairman should introduce these women and tell of their role in the struggle and tracing their spiritual ancestry back to Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman," that they should be applauded, not speak, and then sit down. The male speakers and Rustin all agreed, and that is in fact what happened. Not one woman spoke from the platform.[emphasis added][2]
At that same meeting the men agreed "to add four white cochairmen to the march leadership" but black women were sent to the back of the bus.[3] Jervis Anderson writes:
The program at the Lincoln Memorial was not as smooth in conception and execution as it seemed to the tens of thousands who applauded it. There had been, and probably still was, a brooding feminist rebellion behind the scenes. ... Only Daisy Bates (who had led the struggle to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957) was allowed a brief ceremonial turn on the platform, to introduce five "Negro Women Fighters for Freedom."

Imperatively, those five included Rosa Parks, heroine of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. It was that event which not only produced the celebrated leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., but also inaugurated the modern phase of black protest activism--a phase that had now reached its moral and popular zenith in the March on Washington. In fact, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, one of the newly disgruntled black women--she had been a passionate supporter of every mass initiative A. Philip Randolph had launched since 1941--now declared that the March on Washington would have been rightly called "Rosa Park's Day."

Perhaps, the strongest voice of feminist complaint was Pauli Murray's. Then studying at the Yale School of Divinity, she was among the black civil rights activists who had admired Randolph since the early 1940s. Seethingly displeased with particular arrangements for March on Washington, Pauli Murray wrote to Randolph a week before the event:
I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions. ... It is indefensible to call a national March on Washington and send out a Call which contains the name of not a single woman leader. Nor can this glaring omission be glossed over by inviting several Negro women to appear on the August 28 program.

The time has come to say to you quite candidly, Mr. Randolph, that "tokenism" is as offensive when applied to women as when applied to Negroes, and that I have not devoted the greater part of my adult life to the implementation of human rights to [now] condone any policy which is not inclusive.

Perhaps such a letter would have been more appropriately addressed to Bayard Rustin; for it was he who organized the program and procedures of the March on Washington. [Murray's decision to write to Randolph is understandable since women were excluded from the March leadership and, thus, not privy to the behind-the-scenes decision to make Randolph the titular director while Rustin did the real organizing--VFPD] ... [Pauli Murray's] letter to Randolph echoed the earlier view of the feminist Ella Baker that black men did not want women to share the highest level of civil rights leadership.[4]
Obviously, Rustin was not the only black male civil rights leader with a sexism problem but is it too much to ask a man who had repeatedly been pushed out of the limelight because of his sexual orientation to be more sensitive to issues of sexism? In the case of Rustin the answer may be yes.

As Randall Kennedy notes in his review, "From Protest to Patronage:"
Before the late 1970s, Rustin spent little if any energy advancing the cause of equal treatment for lesbians and gays. ... [Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin author John] D'Emilio notes, however, that even with Rustin's forays into gay politics, he was never quite of it. The year before Rustin died in 1987, gay activist Joseph Beam invited Rustin to contribute to an anthology of writings by black gay men. "After much thought," Rustin responded, "I have decided that I must decline. ... I did not 'come out of the closet' voluntarily--circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. The credit for that belongs to others. ... While I support full equality, under law, for homosexuals, I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter."
This last remark by Rustin is an understatement. In fact, it seems that for most of his life Rustin accepted his own marginalization as a gay man as reasonable or even justified. Moreover, in 1971, when War Resisters League staffer David McReynolds " 'came out of the closet,' Bayard wanted him fired," according to McReynolds.[5] Levine writes that Rustin's "judgment was purely tactical" and Rustin wanted to protect the organization from the fallout over McReynold's admission. Ironically, after Rustin was sentenced to sixty days in jail in 1953 on a "morals charge"--he was arrested while having sex with two men in a car--McReynolds had been supportive and even visited him in jail. Rustin's internalization of homophobia may have led him to turn a blind eye to the marginalization of women, too.

In 1948, Jewish violence in Palestine killed thousands of Arabs. The creation of Israel also created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, driven from their homeland by Jewish terrorism and ethnic cleansing. Although Rustin was keenly sensitive, even self-conscious, about Jewish suffering in World War II he was callous about the suffering of Arabs at the hands of Jews just three years after the end of the WWII.[6] At one point, he even referred to Israel as "the opiate of the Arabs."[7]

In 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive war on neighboring countries, killing thousands more, seizing additional Arab land and creating tens of thousands of additional Palestinian refugees. Although Rustin visited refugee camps in Thailand, Somalia, Pakistan and Puerto Rico as a representative of the International Rescue Committee, he pointedly refused to visit Palestinian refugees in the West Bank.[8] Just three years later, in 1970, Bayard Rustin betrayed his pacifist values and history and publicly lobbied for the United States to provide Israel with all the jet fighters and bombers it had requested.[9] Many of Rustin's old friends and colleagues were appalled.

After the United Nations General Assembly declared "zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" in 1975, Rustin started the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee.[10] He recruited an impressive list of national Black leaders but also attracted a number of Black critics, including one who wrote to a Jewish publication to say: "It is an insult to the collective intelligence of thirty-five million blacks that one hundred 'leaders' use their good name to support Zionism."[11] Psychologist Kenneth B. Clark was among those who refused to join BASIC. " 'I felt,' he explained later, 'that the Palestinians were human beings too; and that we could not have peace in the Middle East until the Palestinian problem was solved.' "[12]

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon killing nearly 20,000 Arabs, mostly civilians. Rustin helped whitewash Israel's atrocity as "an act of legitimate self-defense" and "not terribly destructive."[13]

  1. Daniel Levine. Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Pr, 2000) pp. 134.
  2. Levine, pp. 140-1.
  3. Jervis Anderson. Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) p. 248.
  4. Anderson, pp. 258-9.
  5. Levine, p. 72.
  6. Anderson, p. 339.
  7. John D'Emilio. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. (New York: Free Pr., 2003) p. 483.
  8. Levine, p. 230.
  9. Anderson, p. 339; Levine, pp. 224-6.
  10. Levine, p. 226.
  11. Anderson, pp. 339-40.
  12. Anderson, p. 340.
  13. Levine, p. 231.
Additional Links on Pauli Murray:

See also:
Revised: 10/30/2006, 2/6/2008

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