timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

Two years after organizing the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin made the following arguments in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” (Commentary, 2/39, Feb. 1965). By calling these points “timely,” I don’t mean that they are necessarily correct; I mean that they are usefully provocative in our moment.

1. Racial justice is impossible without a new economy, because the current economy is too unequal and too limited to accommodate many newly enfranchised people. For example, there are too few decent jobs, and the people who have them will hold onto them unless the supply is expanded.

My quarrel with … moderates is that they do not even envision radical changes; their admonitions of moderation are, for all practical purposes, admonitions to the Negro to adjust to the status quo, and are therefore immoral.

2. The goal is not to confront racist attitudes (which would assume that, deep down, racists and hypocrites can have benign motives). The goal is to change institutions; attitudinal change will follow from that.

[Meanwhile, a second group] pursues what I call a ‘no-win’ policy. Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts–by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flaggelants, they may gleefully applaud (though not really agreeing with) Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes–a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions–social, political, and economic institutions–which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let those institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

3. Radical change does not require violence.

[The] term revolutionary, as I have been using it, does not connote violence; it refers to the qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions, more or less rapidly, to the point where the social and political structure which they comprised can no longer be said to be the same.

4. But to change institutions does require power.

There is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.

5. In a democracy, power requires numbers–indeed, a majority of the whole electorate.

A handful of Negroes, acting alone, could integrate a lunch counter by strategically locating their bodies so as directly┬áto interrupt the operation of a proprietor’s will; their numbers were relatively unimportant. … But in arriving at a political decision, numbers and organizations are crucial, especially for the economically disenfranchised.

6. Coalition politics is inevitable, and it implies the right kind of compromise.

[The] effectiveness of a swing vote depends solely on ‘other’ votes. It derives its power from them. … Thus coalitions are inescapable, no matter how tentative they may be. … The issue is which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program. Necessarily there will be compromise. But the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones. The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense.

7. The coalition must include everyone with reasonably aligned interests so that they can marginalize their real opponents, the Donald Trumps of the day.

It has become fashionable in some no-win Negro circles to decry the white liberal as the main enemy (his hypocrisy is what sustains racism). [Thus] the Negro is left in majestic isolation, except for a tiny band of fervent white initiates. But the objective fact is that [Dixecrat Mississippi Senator James] Eastland and [GOP Presidential nominee Barry] Goldwater are the main enemies–they and opponents of civil rights, of the war on poverty, of medicare, of social security, of federal aid to education, of unions, and so forth.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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