The civil rights leader who would hate identity politics

A new film tells the story of Bayard Rustin, a gay, black activist who was steadfast in his support for Jewish causes


Martin Luther King (centre) with his wife Coretta Scott King and colleagues during a civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, March 1965. Bayard Rustin is third from left (William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

December 29, 2023 12:28

He made history, and in turn, he was forgotten,” suggests the promotional material for Rustin, Netflix’s new film about Bayard Rustin — the architect of the legendary 1963 March on Washington.

The film — made by the Obamas’ production company — rightly restores Rustin to the pantheon of US civil rights leaders alongside Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Roy Wilkins.

But it avoids an uncomfortable truth for many on the progressive left: that today they would find Rustin, who died in 1987, an uncomfortable bedfellow.

A pacifist, socialist and Quaker, Rustin was also a staunch Zionist and vocal opponent of antisemitism who would likely have had little truck with the adherents of identity politics and the modern social justice movement.

Rustin was the master of what he termed “creative trouble” and, in the words of Newsweek, “a genius at organisation”. In 1941, he was the youth organiser for a planned march which forced Franklin Roosevelt to ban racial discrimination in the defence industry. Six years later, he helped lead the first “freedom rides” in the segregated South and, as King’s top aide, masterminded the mid-1950s bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the summer of 1963, Rustin and a team of volunteers spent just eight weeks organising what has been termed “the greatest protest in American history”. Over 250,000 people travelled to Washington, gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King deliver his famed “I have a dream” speech. The march laid the groundwork for the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Rustin, a disciple of Gandhi’s tactics in India, was also crucial in shaping how the struggle was waged. “Rustin was as responsible as anyone else for the insinuation of nonviolence into the very heart of what became the most powerful social movement in 20th-century America,” writes his biographer John D’Emilio.

But many of the civil rights leadership worried that their movement might be tainted in the eyes of many Americans by Rustin’s youthful dalliance with communism and his open homosexuality. Rustin was thus frequently relegated from centre stage to backroom tactician, strategist and organiser. Ironically, Rustin’s homosexuality is now front and centre of his profile. This year’s UK Black History Month, for instance, describes him as “A gay man in the civil rights movement”.

However, a focus solely on his contribution to the cause of civil rights or his later work on gay rights doesn’t do justice to the breadth of Rustin’s vision or the strength of his convictions.

As the civil rights movement clocked up a string of legislative victories in the mid-1960s, Rustin was impatient for “the inauguration of an era of massive action at the ballot box designed to bring about new economic programmes”. At the heart of Rustin’s vision was a broad-based coalition for change — one in which Jews would be welcomed and respected and antisemitism would have no place. “I request the understanding, the cooperation and aid of Jews,” he told a conference of the Anti-Defamation League in the late 1960s. “I do so knowing that there is Negro antisemitism and knowing how Jews must feel when they hear some Negro extremists talk.” But, he added: “The issue can never be simply a problem of Jew and gentile or black and white. The problem is man’s inhumanity to man.”

Jews and blacks, Rustin believed, had both been “victims of persecution, injustices and discrimination and until this day suffer”. This, he argued, had produced a shared interest in the “preservation of democracy and in the extension of social justice”.

He was also willing to speak out in uncompromising terms about “Black Power” separatists and radicals such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who — in stark contrast to King and Rustin — traded in antisemitic tropes and bigotry and sought to paint Jews as wealthy, powerful oppressors of African-Americans. Speaking to one Jewish audience, for instance, he denounced “young Negroes speaking material directly from Mein Kampf”.

Later, when fellow civil rights veteran Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 1984, Rustin urged him to repudiate the antisemitism of black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, who had described Judaism as “a gutter religion”. “Farrakhan racism and anti-Semitism are unconscionable,” he wrote in the New York Times.

In a world where some on the left, in keeping with the thinking of the social justice movement, believe that “racism equals prejudice plus power”, deny that Jews can be its victim, and, in the words of Mark Winston Griffith of New York’s Black Movement Centre, suggest that Jewishness is “a form of almost hyper-whiteness”, Rustin’s principles are sorely missed. As the Jewish commentator and author James Kirchick argues, Rustin, who “would bristle at the current penchant for identity politics” and resist “the temptations of tribalism”, provides a “sterling example of moral courage and personal integrity”.

On no issue is that more apparent than Rustin’s unwavering support for Israel. In the years after 1967, the most militant elements of the civil rights movement proclaimed Israel to be a racist, colonial implant in the region; “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist,” pronounced Carmichael. Rustin, however, doggedly defended the Jewish state.

In autumn 1975, as the effort to slur Zionism with the racist tag gathered momentum at the UN, Rustin founded Black Americans to Support Israel Committee. It would, he said, “counter anti-Israel propaganda, which characterises the Israeli people and their government as racist, fascist, [and] imperialist”. He brought with him an array of mainstream black leaders, including his mentor, trade union leader A Philip Randolph, and Wilkins, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Rustin was also outspoken in his criticism of the PLO. When Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the UN, former civil rights leader Andrew Young, met the terror group’s representative in 1979, Rustin warned “we risk becoming the unwitting accomplices of an organisation committed to the bloody destruction of Israel — indeed of the Jewish people”. Comparisons between the PLO and the non-violent US civil rights movement, he argued, were nonsense.

Rustin was keenly aware of the double-standards to which Israel was subjected and the manner in which “proto-fascist” Arab regimes stoked hatred of Israel to distract attention from their own failure to “liberate their people from poverty and misery”. Israel, he argued, was “the opiate of the Arabs”. For Rustin, Israel was “a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction”. “Those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence,” he argued.

Rustin’s commitment to democracy meant that, unlike elements of the left both then and now, he was clear-eyed about the nature of life behind the Iron Curtain. Like Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson — a staunch liberal but unapologetic Cold Warrior who he backed to become the Democratic party’s 1976 presidential candidate — Rustin was particularly alive to the plight of Soviet Jews. In 1966 he chaired the Commission on the Rights of Soviet Jews. Its work, the US-based Centre for Jewish History believes, “served as [a] call to action for thousands of activists of the Soviet Jewry movement”. Rustin continued to attend demonstrations, vigils and conferences throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and worked with Jackson on the Jackson–Vanik amendment — pioneering legislation that tied US trade with the USSR to its treatment of Jews. In 1978, the American Jewish Congress’ honoured Rustin for his “illustrious leadership in the cause of racial justice, world peace and human understanding”.

In the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to drive out the PLO, Rustin returned from a visit to the country bemoaning its “unfairly bad press” and declaring: “No nation in the world will passively accept continuous attacks from forces based in a neighbouring country, and international law recognises that when such a neighbouring country is incapable of halting such attacks, the injured country has every right to undertake that task itself.”

Rustin’s likely response to the atrocities of October 7, and Israel’s effort to dismantle the Hamas threat, is thus not difficult to discern. Nor is his likely revulsion at those in the west who have sought to glorify, justify and minimise the terror group’s butchery.

December 29, 2023 12:28

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