Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Belief and Action.

The centenary of Ronald Reagan's birth was marked with empty words of admiration from the incumbent President, but will the 100th year since the birth of Bayard Rustin be distinguished with comparable veneration? I doubt it. Even though the man came out of the Mahatma Gandhi school of non-violent resistance to battle for the kind of rights and freedoms that are taken for granted today. The commitment Bayard Rustin showed to the cause of human liberation went much further than the shallow words of every conservative icon in American history. It wasn't libertarians who bestowed freedom unto the black man of the South. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were the faces of the respectable reaction against the struggle for equal rights. And these men had the temerity to speak of liberty! In Rustin's own words "The proof that one truly believes is in action."

With those words in mind it cannot be said that Bayard Rustin did not believe. For around six decades Bayard Rustin served as an activist to a multiplicity of causes - from civil rights to anti-imperialism. And in doing so he demonstrated that these causes could potentially be linked together in a common struggle. Rustin had been a member of the Communist Party until Stalin ordered it to give up on the civil rights struggle to back American entry into World War II. He remained a leftist and moved on to the Socialist Party of America and later would lead it as it became Social Democrats USA in the 1970s. All of this made him a primary target of right-wing attacks on the Civil Rights movement. But he was easily scapegoated within the movement itself as he was openly gay. He found himself forced from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because of his sexuality.

Nevertheless, Rustin was unofficially the primary organiser of the March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP did not want to see Bayard Rustin take any credit for the march whatsoever. At the march itself Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream..." speech, the all-American rhetoric of which served to distance himself from the anti-American figure who had organised the march. He was exceptional in that he was at the forefront of so many struggles and yet he was never a public face in the same way as his contemporaries. We shouldn't forget that Malcolm X was a spokesman of the Nation of Islam, which provided him with a remote platform from power where it was safe to speak from. The Nation of Islam languishes in comfort from power, where it is easy to talk tough. It has shirked from any direct confrontation with the US government since Elijah Mohammed was imprisoned for supporting the Japanese in World War II.

Bayard Rustin never joined this particular black nationalist crowd with its anti-Semitic populism and peculiar understanding of the Qu'ran. These were the symptoms of an impotent organisation and Rustin never succumbed to such powerlessness. Rather he was the sort of guy willing to be dragged off to a jail cell dozens of times in the struggle for equal rights and freedoms. A resistant position is by definition uncomfortable. Rustin was never a public face in the same way as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X even though he rubbed shoulders with them - as a mentor in the case of King. We may not know of Rustin but we certainly know of his influence. Just think of the politics of non-violent resistance and the slogan that the "new niggers are gays". People forget that the 1963 March on Washington was a march for jobs and freedom, economic justice loomed in the background of calls for equal rights and universal suffrage.

The radical spirit of Rustin reemerged in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. Then at the Riverside Church the Reverend talked about of "true revolution in values" which "will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" and went further to speak of Western capitalists investing in Asia and Africa only before taking the profits out with no concern for these countries. King went on to say "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than programmes of social uplift was approaching spiritual death." Then came the stinging line for the elites "The United States government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." It provoked merciless attacks, he was charged as a leftist demagogue by the mainstream media and the establishment. King had crossed the line. This is the figure that we aren't supposed to revere, though we are meant to pay lipservice to "I have a dream..." and nothing more.

By then Malcolm X had been wasted by hired thugs and soon enough King would meet a violent end too. Bayard Rustin did not meet this fate, but he would become a convenient victim of America's cultural amnesia. The case of Bayard Rustin tells one a lot about bigotry, how it penetrated both sides of the civil rights struggle in the 60s. The point at which civil rights for blacks and gays may converge with the struggle for working-class emancipation is something that could never be accepted. Everything from race, sexuality and gender can be incorporated into capitalism at the shallow level of 'sameness'. But when it comes to class, the system cannot even speak its name. The politics of class-war are something to move beyond apparently, whereas there is plenty of time for talk of positive discrimination and quotas to make sure there are women on the board of directors. If anything Bayard Rustin embodies the relentless spirit which made the impossible possible and has yet to fully triumph in the United States.

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