In celebration of Bayard Rustin’s having been awarded a posthumous Medal of Freedom, here is part of what Ann Yasuhara wrote for his 100th birthday for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Quakers) event.
There were underlying dreams that lasted throughout BRs adult life, but they often
came into conflict because the social realities. So, many times he had to make
extremely painful choices depending on the situation at hand as he read it. (As
activists, we can definitely identify with these kinds of situations.)
The Main Themes/goals were:
Economic justice/equality (socialism).
To Rustin, these were not in conflict, but actually all of a piece. And, I think they are.
But in real situations where he was involved in trying to make them happen, he
often had to sacrifice one (or more) to make progress with another. In particular, it
was very difficult to focus on economic equality (actually inequality). As has often
been the case, it got sacrificed – as it still does – to an argument about which is more
basic: racial equality or economic equality? Further, as bad as racial inequality is, it
has been easier to talk about than to try to address economic inequality. Economic
inequality has been almost buried – hard to get talked about in the general public.
This is an important point of 2012 – finally, thanks to the Occupy movement,
economic inequality is part of the public discourse. Nothing can be done about it if it
isn’t a category that people have in their minds and are able to talk about.
The Internal Conflicts that he faced and knew he was facing were the pressures
thoughtful people often face:
Moral Purity vs Pragmatic Compromise.
Being an outsider vs being an insider
Long term dreams vs short term gains
Unlike many radicals he came to believe that government that a real democracy
could realize his dreams/goals. He had seen what the government did toward
achieving economic equality during the Roosevelt era and that made him think
it would be just the first step. National state as employer as in the WPA. Faith in
the power of goverment to improve, even save, lives. He became more and more a
believer in “big government liberalism”.
He also believed in and was a master builder of coalitions – which also brought
his underlying dreams into conflict as well as internal conflicts. This showed up
many times, often when it was a question of civil rights (equality for blacks in a
white society) and economic equality for all (which he thought could be brought
about by the labor unions). This particular problem arose in the design of the March
anniversary observance of his march on Washington – between incorporating some more conventional groups like the NAACP and involving some young radicals like John Lewis.
Historically he was inspired by these Americans: Jefferson (declaration of
independence),Thoreau (civil disobedience), Lincoln (ability of ordinary Americans
to govern themselves), Whitman (quest for true American community), DeBois
(legal & political rights of African Americans), Debs (American socialist – rough
equivalence of economic conditions for all; labor unions). He was also inspired by
Gandhi whom he went to visit but arrived after Gandhi’s assassination.
There are several books about Rustin and a DVD. He was also a beautiful writer
(and singer). These are what I am familiar with:
DVD “Brother Outsider”
Books about Rustin:
“Bayard Rustin, American Dreamer”, Jerald Podair
“Lost Prophet: the Life and Times of Bayard Rustin”, John D’Emilio
“Bayard Rustin:Troubles I’ve Seen: a biography”, Jervis Anderson
Books of Rustin’s writings:
“I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters”, Michel G. Long, ed
“Time On Two Crosses: Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”, Carbado & Weiss eds.