Monday, July 7, 2008

Prejudice Is of a Single Bit: The Continuing Importance of Bayard Rustin

I had intended to blog today about the African-American leader Bayard Rustin, whose observation about angelic troublemakers forms the footer to this blog’s homepage. Rustin fascinates me for all kinds of reasons I’ve outlined in previous postings: he was an African-American civil rights leader who also happened to be gay, and who recognized the interconnections between the black quest for civil rights and the gay quest; his activism was fed by deep spiritual roots; along with Mary McLeod Bethune, whom he knew, he saw American democracy as an unfinished project that grows as we extend rights to groups currently deprived of rights; and he found a way to do his work and make his voice heard despite the atrocious opposition he attracted as both a man of color and a gay man.

With that nexus of thoughts in mind for today’s blog, I was delighted to click today on a blog I read each weekday—peterson toscano’s a musing—and to discover that Peterson Toscano blogged about Bayard Rustin yesterday. In fact, he incorporates some of the same material I had set aside for my posting today.

My blog is linked to Peterson Toscano’s blog in the links section. I recommend his blog because of its exploration of the connections between Quakerism and social justice—and, in particular, between Quakerism and an ethic of radical inclusion of LGBT people. That ethic is sorely needed at a time in which strong (and well-funded forces) within some churches, including the worldwide Anglican communion, are pushing hard to make the exclusion of LGBT human beings a centerpiece of what it means to be church in the 21st century.

I think it may even have been on Peterson Toscano’s blog that I first encountered Bayard Rustin and his thought. Though I spent a semester on fellowship in 1989 studying the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t recall running across Rustin in the abundant material I read by and about King in that semester. This is surely an indicator of how his significant influence on King’s thought has been muted by conscious and unconscious homophobia on the part of those of us who have studied King’s work over the years.

I noted on my comments on this year’s anniversary of Juneteenth ( that I was reading John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (NY: Free Press, 1993). I’ve been reading D’Emilio’s outstanding biography of Rustin with an eye to the debates about race and gender, models of leadership, and the influence of faith in the public sphere, which the current presidential campaign has stirred up.

Rustin is profoundly important at this juncture of American history because he offers us a vision of participatory democracy to which we need to pay keen attention as we struggle to save our own democracy. As I have noted previously, in my view, if those of us concerned to safeguard democracy in the United States do not work hard in the next few years to reverse the forces that have virtually eroded the legacy of the founding fathers and mothers, we may be facing the extinction of our democratic experiment.

Rustin also strikes me as worth studying carefully at this moment because, for the first time in our history, we have an African-American presidential candidate as a front runner. And, as I’ve noted in previous postings, Mr. Obama is a candidate who appears, thus far, to have the promise to craft new post-homophobic models of African-American leadership, which are sorely needed by the nation as a whole as well as by the African-American community ( Rustin points the way to those models.

In what follows, I’d like to offer some reflections on key themes of Rustin’s thought, using D’Emilio’s biography of Rustin to identify those themes:

As a civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin was sustained by a vision of democracy that presupposes democracy can and must be constantly extended to disenfranchised groups. D’Emilio notes,
He [i.e., Rustin] argued that out of the civil rights movement there could emerge a coalition of conscience capable of becoming a new progressive majority in the United States. His strategy rested on a bedrock optimism that the American political system was flexible and responsive enough to embrace change of revolutionary dimensions. He believed that peaceful democratic means were adequate to the task of remaking relations of power. Rustin also had faith that individual human beings themselves were just as flexible and that, over time, they could be moved to recognize the worth of every one of their fellows and act accordingly (my emphasis, p. 4).
Rustin’s thought is akin to Mary McLeod Bethune’s, in this respect—and the civil rights philosophy of both of these significant 20th-century African-American leaders may have been fed by some of the same spiritual currents. As did Bethune, Rustin assumed that democracy is a constantly unfinished project.

It grows as we survey the communities in which we live and identify those who are presently disenfranchised, shoved from the table. It grows as we abolish barriers to the inclusion and participation of these disenfranchised groups: as we bring them to the table. The vision of participatory democracy enshrined in our foundational documents assumes that no human being is incapable of making an important contribution to the democratic process, of being at the table, simply because of the color of his skin, her national origin, his social status, her gender, or his/her sexual orientation.

As I noted in a previous posting about Rustin, he was personally connected to Dr. Bethune; the carryover of certain themes in their understanding of participatory democracy may well be rooted in their personal ties to each other. D’Emilio notes that Dr. Bethune stayed with the Rustin family when passing through their area of Pennsylvania (p. 12, citing Gottlieb ms., August Meier Papers at Schomburg Library, New York, NY; and Rustin interview, Columbia Univ. Oral History Collection, New York, NY).

As did Mary McLeod Bethune, Bayard Rustin developed a technique of social activism that depended on sponsoring workshops and town-hall meetings in every community in which he worked. These workshops brought together as many local constituencies as possible. They intentionally brought everyone to the table, so that every perspective could be heard. As did Bethune’s town-hall meetings, the workshops focused on (and tried to model) a communal process of consciousness-raising (pp. 140f).

Bayard Rustin’s philosophy of civil rights arose out of his combined Methodist and Quaker roots. Rustin was raised in a home over which his mother Julia, an African Methodist Episcopal church member, presided. However, Julia Rustin had grown up in a culture imbued with Quaker influence, and both she and Rustin himself often noted the significance of this influence on their lives (p. 9, citing Daily Local News, West Chester, PA, 17 June 1941 and 29 April 1957, in Rustin clipping files at Chester Co. Hist. Soc., West Chester; and Rustin interview, Columbia Univ. Oral History Collection, New York, NY). Julia Rustin’s influence led to her son becoming a Quaker, with the “socially engaged spirituality” of the Friends (see pp. 25-6).

At a crucial point early in Rustin’s career as an activist, he came into contact with Abraham Johannes Muste, the executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This contact brought him into association with the National Council of Methodist Youth, the most politically engaged Christian youth group of the 1930s (p. 44). Sadly, however, Muste was later to repudiate Rustin when it became apparent that he was gay and would not dissimulate about his identity as a gay man.

Bayard Rustin’s spiritual formation caused him to view his civil rights work as not a job, but a vocation. As D’Emilio notes, “His work was a calling, not a job” (p. 197). The spiritual bedrock on which his vision of civil rights activism rested grew even more solid (and ecumenical) when he encountered the thought of Gandhi. Rustin was one of the primary interpreters of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent action for American social activists, and for Martin Luther King in particular (pp. 52-3).

In some key respects, in fact, it was Bayard Rustin who brought the concept of satyagraha to the civil rights movement in the U.S. The attempt to wed Gandhian nonviolence to American civil rights activism brought him into contact with a leading Methodist thinker of his day, J. Holmes Smith, a former Methodist missionary to India, who founded an ashram in Harlem to model satyagraha in an American context (p. 53).

The combined Quaker and Gandhian roots of Rustin’s civil rights thought (as well as the Methodist emphasis on social justice) caused Rustin to challenge the come-to-Jesus theology of some black churches. In interviews late in his life, Rustin notes that he and King struggled constantly against the attempt of many black church leaders to confine civil rights activism within a stifling theology of soul saving, which was tone-deaf to the need for social transformation (p. 238, citing Rustin interview, Columbia Univ. Oral History Collection, New York, NY).

As a Quaker, Rustin insisted that any path to social change that would effect lasting change within the culture at large had to begin with the change of institutions, and not of hearts (p. 400). His experience as a Quaker led him to note that relying on moral appeal to change institutions like slavery did not work: laws outlawing slavery had to be enacted first. If people’s hearts were to change eventually, they would do so only when legislative, judicial, and institutional attempts to build a more just and humane society preceded that change.

The diverse roots of Bayard Rustin’s spirituality and philosophy of civil rights reflect broad catholic interests and a refusal to accept conventional lines in his own life and in his calling as a civil rights leader. Rustin was always transgressing lines, crossing lines, building coalitions beyond the safe confines of any particular community:
Throughout his life, Bayard maintained a catholic set of interests. He refused to honor the lines that marked and separated individuals and that stratified American society. Gay worlds and straight, black worlds and white, spiritual communities and secular political ones, artistic expression and grass-roots activism all appealed to him (p. 33).
Bayard Rustin believed that the primary role of a transformative leader is to be a moral exemplar of the changes she is trying to effect as a leader. Along with Gandhi—and in line with his Quaker roots—Rustin constantly emphasized that a transformative leader cannot violate the principles he is preaching, in his own life, if he expects to be effective in leading a movement of social change. Rustin stressed the “special responsibility” of leaders to model the moral values of social change as he worked with Dr. King to develop a compelling strategy for social change in race relations (pp. 231, 239).

Bayard Rustin believed that it was profoundly self-defeating for African-American civil rights activists to confine their struggle for human rights to the issue of race alone. As did Dr. King, Rustin held that that “the uplift of all poor people is part of the struggle of Negroes for justice” (p. 266, citing King Papers, Boston University, box 5, folder 29; Bayard Rustin Papers, reel 3, Martin Luther King folder).

Rustin struggled against the NAACP’s attempt to confine civil rights activism to racial issues alone (p. 295), as well as against the gradualist philosophy of the NAACP, which trusted in a top-down approach to racial change, rather than a grassroots approach (p. 293). Rustin saw this approach as not merely self-defeating, since it isolated black Americans from other groups of the poor (that is, the marginal and disenfranchised) struggling for civil rights; he also saw it as self-serving, as an approach that benefited primarily key black ministers and other leaders of the civil rights movement, at the expense of the African-American community as a whole.

In Rustin’s view, civil rights for African Americans makes sense only when viewed within the context of a much broader progressive movement for social change on many fronts in the United States: he characterized the movement for racial equity as the “spearhead” of a much broader movement (pp. 362-3). As Rustin maintained, “We need a political and social reform program that will not only help the Negroes but one that will help all Americans” (p. 363, citing NY Times, 6 Dec. 1963). Indeed, Rustin maintained that the civil rights movement would eventually die out if it did not reach across narrow boundary lines and make common cause with other movements for progressive change—its future depended on a progressive coalition that transcended racial concerns alone (p. 401, citing “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary [Feb. 1965]).

Bayard Rustin’s broad vision of a coalition for progressive change in the United States included gay human beings and gay civil rights. It is incontrovertible that Rustin’s experience as a gay man led him to recognize the significant connections between the black struggle for civil rights and the struggle of gay Americans for civil rights. Rustin’s experience as a black civil rights activist and as a gay man convinced him that African Americans undermined the moral legitimacy of their claim to full human rights if they denied those same rights to other groups—and, notably, to gay brothers and sisters.

Rustin’s experience as a gay man working in the civil rights movement was made exceedingly painful due to the vicious homophobia of some of his friends and allies. In alliance with Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Roy Wilkins so brutally attacked Rustin (slandering him in public forums and seeking to destroy his reputation) that Rustin almost decided to withdraw altogether from the movement for black liberation (pp. 297-300). And, though King himself repudiated Rustin repeatedly because of Rustin’s sexual orientation—while relying on him as a key advisor and strategist—on one occasion in 1964 Rustin helped to shield Dr. King’s entourage, including King’s brother, from morals charges in Oslo when the entourage had brought white prostitutes to their hotel room (p. 396).

Rustin’s experience as the despised, dispossessed, unacknowledged prophet of human rights for all in the black liberation movement led him to note, at the end of his life, that gay rights had become the barometer of civil rights as the 20th century neared its close. In this context, he observed that prejudice is of a single bit:
There are very few liberal Christians today who would dare say anything other than blacks are our brothers and they should be treated so, but they will make all kinds of hideous distinctions when it comes to our gay brothers . . . . There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won’t accept fags. That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights (p. 490, citing George Chauncey, Jr. and Lisa Kennedy, “Time on Two Crosses: An Interview with Bayard Rustin,” Village Voice, 30 June 1987, pp. 27-29).
Rustin spoke those prophetic words in 1987. It is now 2008. Twenty years later . . . .

Do Christians still “make all kinds of hideous distinctions when it comes to our gay brothers” in 2008? If so, Rustin’s voice may be just as pertinent now—or perhaps even more pertinent—than it was in the 20th century.


colkoch said...

Bayard Rustin is an amazing man, and apparently a very forgiving one.

As to the question as to whether Christians make hideous distinctions about their gay brothers, I'd say it's more like they're using their gay brothers to emphasize their hideous distinctions and hide their fascist agenda.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, you're right--Bayard Rustin is truly amazing. I think now may be the time when he finally receives the commemoration due to him as one of the leading theorists of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 20th century. He exemplifies the passage in which the gospels say that Jesus came to his own, and his own refused to know him. It's deeply sad that much of the worst prejudice he experienced as a gay man came from within the ranks of the civil rights movement itself.

His ability to carry on despite the prejudice is, to me, a testament to his spirituality--both the Quaker spirituality that insists we keep trying to proceed "as way opens" when injustice blocks one way, and the spirituality of satyagraha, which saw nonviolence as the active struggle against injustice.

That fascist agenda is really apparent in the churches these days, isn't it? Even a leading Anglican evangelical bishop recently noted that GAFCON was all about trying to bully the worldwide Anglican communion.

When I see pictures of gay pride marchers beaten recently in eastern Europe by fascist skinheads, I wonder why the churches spend so much time condemning gays--and not fascist violence like this. The fascism used to attack gays physically in some countries is actually rooted in the churches!