A Tribute to Bayard Rustin

Delivered by Carl Gershman at the Social Democrats National Convention at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. on December 4, 1987

It is now more than three months since Bayard Rustin died. I am tempted to say that it seems like only yesterday that he passed from us, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a very long time ago. Who here, who knew and worked with Bayard, has not been acutely conscious over these past few months of his absence? It’s not simply that we miss his political presence, which we do. He was, after all, a unique political figure: an activist, an organizer, a tactician, a theoretician, a coalition builder, a powerful voice — in word and in song — a moral leader whose unique combination of courage, conviction, experience, and honesty was without parallel in our society.

But we also miss his personal presence. Bayard touched everyone he knew, even people he encountered only superficially, with a certain grace. The flair with which he spoke and dressed, his avid appreciation of people and different cultures, his humor — at times his outrageous humor — were all signs of a person comfortable with himself and happy to be alive. His enthusiasm could cut through the racial tensions in South Africa, and his compassion — without any trace of sentimentality — could give hope even to the most desperate refugees. As for us, his comrades and friends, his passing leaves a void that cannot be filled.

From the standpoint of conventional definitions, Bayard was a complex figure politically and ideologically. He could move within and among the major institutions of society to build broad coalitions of support for the causes he advocated. Yet he was always something of an outsider, an activist, a catalyst. He abandoned the absolute pacifism of his early years, but he always remained committed to the method of nonviolence to achieve social change. After a brief flirtation with Communism in his youth, he became a socialist and, increasingly in his later years, an anti-Communist. He devoted his life to the uplifting of blacks, yet he opposed proposals to assist them at the expense of others or to hold them to a separate standard.

Somehow, Bayard never lost his bearings, as did so many others in the world of radical politics in which he moved. To the degree that his views changed over time, and they did, he progressed to a more mature understanding of democracy and a deeper loyalty to the United States.

At the core of Bayard’s political philosophy was the view that the movement for racial equality must be rooted in universal democratic principles. He once told a meeting of the A. Philip Randolph Institute that “blacks will have nothing to offer mankind if they are concerned only with themselves.” At times, especially in the heat of political struggle when he was trying to coalesce diverse groups around common objectives, Bayard would call upon blacks to develop a strategy and program that would appeal also to whites. But the political and tactical considerations that led him to look beyond issues addressed exclusively to blacks were themselves based on a belief in democracy and the principles of human equality, individual liberty, and just treatment for all which make up the American civic creed. He believed in the democratic process and wanted to see it work for all people.

Bayard’s belief in these principles infused his political activism at home and abroad. For him the separation between domestic and international issues was artificial — the issue was democracy itself, everywhere. To further that cause, he placed himself at the cutting edge of democratic change in this century’s two great movements of nonwhite peoples for racial equality: the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggles for decolonization in Africa and Asia.

He moved in and out of both movements as if they were a single cause guided by the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience which he, as much as anyone, helped to forge. He was youth organizer for A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement in 1941 which pressured President Roosevelt to sign the executive order integrating the defense industries. Seven years later, he was executive secretary of Randolph’s League for Nonviolent civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation which succeeded in getting President Truman to sign another executive order ending military discrimination. He helped found the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and was CORE’s first field secretary. He was arrested on CORE’s first Freedom Ride in 1947 and spent twenty-two days on a North Carolina chaingang as a result. (It is worth noting here that during the course of his career, Bayard was arrested twenty-four times for his civil rights and political activities, including a sentence of twenty-eight months as a conscientious objector during World War II.)

When the civil rights movement erupted in the mid-1950s, Bayard quickly became one of its foremost leaders, providing it with the tactics and philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience and, as a socialist, introducing the view that racial equality required basic economic reforms as well as guaranteed legal rights. He helped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organize the Montgomery bus boycott, drew up the blueprint for establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped organize the Prayer Pilgrimage and the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools, and in 1963, with Mr. Randolph, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which led to the passage of the historic civil rights bills outlawing Jim Crow.

Through all this, he was chairman of the Free India Committee, making several visits to India (one as long as six months); in 1951 he founded the Committee to Support South African Resistance, and worked with Nkrumah in Ghana, Azikewe in Nigeria, Nyerere in Tanganyika and with others elsewhere in Africa in support of national independence movements. Those of us who were at times distressed at Bayard’s frequent absences and far-flung travels might take some comfort in the fact that his international work did not let up even during the height of the civil rights movement. In David J. Garrow’s recent biography of Dr. King, one finds the civil rights leader distressed over Bayard’s absence in Ghana and writing to an aide: “Please keep me informed about Bayard’s possible return. We really need his services as soon as possible.”

Bayard’s most severe test came not before but after the triumph of the civil rights movement in 1964-65. Before then, the challenges were vast but the issues were relatively simple. The civil rights and anti-colonial movement with which he was associated had a clear democratic character and it was enough simply to organize, to pressure, to go to jail if need be, and to participate in and accelerate the movement of history. Thereafter, things fell apart.

No one knew better than Bayard how much more difficult and complex it would be to achieve social and economic equality for blacks than it had been to gain civil and political rights. He saw the problem of the ghetto poor before anyone else, understood that automation and the movement of jobs threatened to cut them off even further from the mainstream of the economy, and tri~d to rally the civil rights forces, the labor movement and the entire liberal community for a massive assault on the problem. He urged the protest movement to become a political movement, to appeal to all of the people of America on a nonracial basis, and to adopt Mr. Randolph’s Freedom Budget as its program to fulfill the promise of equality.

It was not to be. The late 1960s, as we recall, was a period of racial polarization, political radicalization, and rising violence. Black Power was in the ascendancy, the liberal left was becoming increasingly preoccupied with Vietnam and hostile to the Johnson Administration, and the politics of the country as a whole were moving to the right. What began for Bayard as an effort to redirect the country’s attention to the appalling plight of the black poor in the urban ghettoes of the North soon became a debate within the black movement against tendencies he believed would cripple any meaningful effort to alleviate the conditions of the most disadvantaged blacks.

He opposed separatism; he opposed reparations; he opposed quotas. He opposed the whole notion that racial equality could be achieved by society paying a debt owed to blacks for past injustices. He wanted equality based upon training, work and achievement, not handouts based upon recrimination and guilt. He feared that a philosophy of racial victimization would produce no more than token concessions to the most organized and advantaged blacks, while eroding black self-esteem and the ethic of individual responsibility. He believed that a racially-based politics not only would undermine the chances for building a broad national movement for change, but would also sever the vital link between the black movement and the American civic creed of justice for all.

As the Sixties moved into the Seventies, Bayard became aware that the debate was larger than a disagreement over tactics and philosophy within the black movement. He saw the betrayal of the democratic promise of the anti-colonial movement as well, and the emergence in the newly-dubbed Third World of a radical nationalism that was at once anti-Western and authoritarian and also based upon the notion that inequality derived from exploitation and could only be rectified by payment of reparations.

His response to the disintegration of the two democratic movements with which he had been associated was not to retreat into despair or to rationalize the indefensible on the grounds that one must not criticize the former victims of persecution. Bayard never despaired or rationalized. He spoke out clearly and consistently against the new violations of democratic principles, even if in so doing he sacrificed his standing in some circles of fashionable opinion. And he turned his attention to new causes, remaining as always at the cutting edge of the democratic struggle.

He defended the rights of Soviet dissidents and refuseniks. He worked for the care and resettlement of refugees from Indochina, Afghanistan, Ethopia, Haiti and other benighted countries. He supported Israel against its enemies and the Polish Solidarity movement against its enemies. He visited democrats in Chile and Paraguay and established an organization to support those working peacefully against apartheid and for the establishment of an interracial democracy in South Africa. His last visit was to Haiti, and we know that were Bayard alive today, he would have just returned from that country, having witnessed the carnage that took place during last Sunday’s abortive election, and would be doing everything he could to defend the rights of the Haitian people.

Bayard lived long enough to see the world democratic revival — the democratic revolution, for which he was the foremost proponent in the United states. Like the earlier civil rights struggle in the American South which looked to the North for support, Bayard understood that the new democratic revolution had to rely upon support from the center of freedom in the world, which was, of course, the United States.

In standing for democracy, Bayard opposed the notion that blacks are “a Third World people in the first world,” as Jesse Jackson once put it. He would not refrain from denouncing Amin’s crimes in the interest of maintaining the facade of racial solidarity. He resisted any attempt to ally American blacks with the PLO and repudiated unequivocally the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan. He believed in democracy and in America and in the democratic promise of this country. “I have lived through many struggles in the U.S.,” Bayard once said. “I have seen much suffering in this country. Yet despite all this, I can confidently assert that I would prefer to be a black in America than a Jew in Moscow, a Chinese in Peking, or a black in Uganda, yesterday or today. For the democratic principles which are an integral part of America’s tradition are the greatest legacy and the greatest gift of all.” In 1980, this was a heretical thought for an American black to utter, but Bayard was always the dissident and always ready to follow his democratic convictions wherever they would take him.

What is Bayard’s legacy to us? He embraced and embodied social democracy according to Sidney Hook’s definition of the term — democracy as a way of life. He not only lived and breathed democracy and put his life on the line for it, but was prepared to defend the democratic idea within mass movements for social change against those who would corrupt such movements and divert them from their democratic course. Bayard never left the movement and never compromised his principles. He showed that one could live an honest and an honorable political life in this century, in this culture, as a black, without succumbing to the utopianism of radical politics or the tyranny of political fashion and without ever insisting upon a psychological or political crutch on which to lean. To have had him as a cherished friend and leader should help us remember who we are, where we come from, and why the democratic mission which he chose and which we, too, have chosen, is vital to the future of mankind.