Bayard Rustin: A Hero in the Freedom Movement

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

Over the years, the idea of freedom, as embodied in the selection of recipients for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has been steadily defined downward.  Athletes and celebrity entertainers increasingly dominate the roster of medal recipients to the detriment of genuine heroes of democratic struggle or those who have done the intellectual work of explaining to a sometimes wary world why freedom matters. 

Thus all the more reason to give three resounding cheers for President Barack Obama’s decision to name Bayard Rustin as a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Freedom this year. 

Bayard was among the most important, albeit most underappreciated and poorly understood, figures in the annals of the 20th century democratic struggle.  He had a complicated political background, having briefly been a member of a Communist youth organization before embracing pacifism and then the movement for racial equality.  He also embraced the anti-colonial cause and became an advocate of Gandhian tactics of non-violent civil disobedience as the most effective method of propelling democratic revolutions. 

In the 1950s, Bayard became one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s key advisers.  He played a major role in devising the tactics that were responsible for the civil rights movement’s early victories in the Deep South.

Bayard was a man of total physical courage, as attested to by his involvement in a series of “Freedom Rides” in the South years before King’s movement began its campaigns against Jim Crow laws.

In 1963, Bayard was named as the chief organizer of the March on Washington (whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated later this month), without a doubt the most successful event of its kind in American history.  The very idea of hundreds of thousands of black people (and a fair number of whites) coming together in peaceful protest was enough to put America on edge, especially at a time when black campaigns for basic rights in the South were met with mayhem and murder by white authorities and extremist groups.  Bayard worked night and day to ensure that the march was big, peaceful, and orderly, and that its message would inspire the country towards support of laws that would eliminate legal forms of discrimination.  The march, of course, reached its crescendo with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  And then, a year later, the omnibus Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the first of a series of measures that were to contribute to a virtual transformation in American race relations.

The March on Washington is generally regarded as Bayard’s greatest achievement.  Yet it was during the period after the march and the passage of the Civil Rights Act that Bayard faced some of the most daunting tests of his career as a leading member of the freedom struggle.

Bayard was gay, and there is no question that his homosexuality stood as an obstacle to his rise to a greater leadership role in the civil rights movement. A testament to the political tenor of the times was the fact that his friend and mentor, the radical pacifist A. J. Muste, broke with Bayard after Bayard was arrested on what was described as a morals charge.  Later, black leaders who resented Bayard’s influence on King tried to persuade King to marginalize him. In a shameful capitulation, King dismissed Bayard for a time from his inner circle after Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. threatened to spread rumors that King and Bayard were gay lovers.  And when Bayard was named organizer of the March on Washington, segregationist politicians made his sexual orientation an issue.  But A. Philip Randolph, the legendary black trade union and civil rights leader, stood firmly behind Bayard, and his sexuality was never again a serious impediment to his career as civil rights or human rights advocate.

Bayard was also endowed with a rare intellectual honesty.  When the civil rights movement under King’s leadership moved in directions that Bayard believed unwise, he politely but firmly dissented.  Unlike the southern preachers who dominated King’s base of activism in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Bayard had spent his life in the North, where blacks, though suffering pervasive discrimination, had gained a political foothold.  In many northern cities, there was a black leader who dominated inner city politics and would not look kindly on a southern-based protest movement undermining his authority.  Bayard counseled King against taking the movement North; King ignored the advice, and the result, as Bayard had predicted, was a tactical calamity.  Not only did the northern protests fail, but the perception of civil rights advocates as favoring a constant escalation of protest tactics contributed to a marked decline in public support for civil rights.   

Bayard’s differences with King over the move to the North were principally tactical.  His break with King over the movement’s embrace of the anti-Vietnam War cause was more fundamental.  Although Bayard had flirted with Communism and still professed an adherence to pacifist ideas, his views on America’s role in the world had evolved.  Like many other liberals of the time, Bayard opposed the war but was deeply disturbed by the prospect of Vietnam’s people coming under the domination of a totalitarian regime on the Soviet or Chinese model.  More to the point, Bayard was convinced that linking racial equality to what developed into a broad and increasingly intemperate attack on the very core of American foreign policy would isolate the civil rights movement from the American mainstream.

Bayard’s refusal to join the anti-war cause made him a pariah to the new breed of radical black personalities, who increasingly turned away from nonviolence, integration, and coalition-building while embracing black nationalism, Black Power, and (at least rhetorically) the use of violence. 

During the years in the 1970s when I worked as an aide to Bayard, his principal preoccupation was to bring black Americans into the political and social mainstream as normal and equal participants.  In other words, he was a true integrationist.  He  consistently favored policies that were meant to raise the standards of  all working Americans as more effective and more likely to build a broad-based liberal consensus towards economic change, and was thus uncomfortable with racial preferences that he believed would alienate the white working class.   He admired Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his intellectual independence and willingness to challenge orthodoxies, and broke with other black leaders in supporting Moynihan in his successful campaign for the Senate. 

In his later career, Bayard devoted much of his energy to the struggle for global democracy through campaigns that he led on behalf of Freedom House. While much of his attention was focused on developments in Africa, he was among the first to speak out against the horrors Cambodians suffered under the genocidal policies of the Khmer Rouge, and he championed the causes of the Vietnamese boat people, the Solidarity trade union in Poland, and Soviet Jews.  Bayard was increasingly concerned about the domination of African societies by repressive, thuggish dictatorships, and by the silence of black political figures in the United States over the region’s lack of freedom.   Strongly influenced by the fate of European Jewry under Adolf Hitler’s persecution and by ongoing threats to Israel from its neighbors, Bayard came to adjust his pacifist views that had been formed in pre-Holocaust times. 

In the six years I was formally associated with Bayard, I learned more about why freedom movements succeed and why they fail than I learned from all the writings I’ve encountered since.  And I had the great fortune to spend each working day with one of America’s most remarkable public figures.  Bayard’s commitment to freedom was total and his contribution immense.  All who love liberty and equal rights should raise a glass in celebration of Bayard’s designation as a Medal of Freedom recipient.

Photo Caption: Bayard Rustin and Dr. Eugene Reed at Freedom House
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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