From Protest to Patronage | The Nation


From Protest to Patronage

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He subsequently elaborated on this view in a remarkable essay published in 1965 in Commentary, "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement." Anticipating William Julius Wilson by more than a decade, Rustin argued that blacks had already entered an era in which economics would play a more important role than traditional racism in undermining racial equality. Although the civil rights movement had largely succeeded in destroying the legal foundations of racism, he asserted, it had barely touched upon the conditions of black impoverishment, joblessness, ghettoization and inferior skills and education--conditions that could persist even with the waning of old-fashioned bigotry. In Rustin's view, "de facto segregation in our most fundamental socioeconomic institutions" did not lend itself to the moralistic protest orientation of the civil rights movement. What was needed was a political strategy geared toward patiently reinforcing and enlarging the grand coalition that produced the March on Washington, entrenching it in the Democratic Party and moving that party leftward.

About the Author

Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy, a member of The Nation's editorial board, teaches law at Harvard. His most recent book is Interracial...

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to the landmark Supreme Court rulings in Brown v. Board of
and Bolling v.

On November 7, voters in Alabama erased from that state's Constitution a provision dating from 1901 that declared that "the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro." This declaration represented in part a desire by white supremacists to express as fully as possible their intention to expunge the racially egalitarian symbols, hopes and reforms of Reconstruction. Although Alabama had never enacted a law expressly authorizing interracial marriage, in 1872 the state's Supreme Court did invalidate the law that prohibited such unions. But it promptly reversed itself in 1877 when white supremacists regained power. The Alabama Constitution's disapproval of interracial marriage, however, had still deeper roots. It stemmed from the presumption that white men had the authority to dictate whom, in racial terms, a person could and could not marry. It was also rooted in the belief that certain segments of the population were simply too degraded to be eligible as partners in marriage with whites. At one point or another, forty states prohibited marriage across racial lines. In all of them blacks were stigmatized as matrimonial untouchables. In several, "Mongolians" (people of Japanese or Chinese ancestry), "Malays" (Filipinos) and Native Americans were also placed beyond the pale of acceptability.

Rationales for barring interracial marriage are useful to consider, especially since some of them echo so resonantly justifications voiced today by defenders of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. One rationale for barring interracial marriages was that the progeny of such matches would be incapable of procreating. Another was that God did not intend for the races to mix. Another was that colored people, especially blacks, are irredeemably inferior to whites and pose a terrible risk of contamination. The Negrophobic Thomas Dixon spoke for many white supremacists when he warned in his novel The Leopard's Spots that "this Republic can have no future if racial lines are broken and its proud citizenry sinks to the level of a mongrel breed." A single drop of Negro blood, he maintained apocalyptically, "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, then the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."

Although opponents of prohibitions on interracial marriage have waged struggles in many forums (e.g., academia, the churches, journalism), two in particular have been decisive. One is the courtroom. In 1967 in the most aptly titled case in American history--Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia--the United States Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Although much credit is lavished on the Court's decision, it bears noting that nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Supreme Court of California had reached the same conclusion in an extraordinary, albeit neglected, opinion by Justice Roger Traynor.) When the federal Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws at the marriage altar, it relied on the massive change in public attitudes reflected and nourished by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" address (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The Court also relied on the fact that by 1967, only sixteen states, in one region of the country, continued to retain laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This highlights the importance of the second major forum in which opponents of racial bars pressed their struggle: state legislatures. Between World War II and the Civil Rights Revolution, scores of state legislatures repealed bans against interracial marriage, thereby laying the moral, social and political groundwork for the Loving decision. Rarely will any court truly be a pioneer. Much more typically judges act in support of a development that is already well under way.

Unlike opponents of Brown v. Board of Education, antagonists of Loving were unable to mount anything like "massive resistance." They neither rioted, nor promulgated Congressional manifestoes condemning the Court, nor closed down marriage bureaus to prevent the desegregation of matrimony. There was, however, some opposition. In 1970, for example, a judge near Fort McClellan, Alabama, denied on racial grounds a marriage license to a white soldier and his black fiancée. This prompted a lawsuit initiated by the US Justice Department that led to the invalidation of Alabama's statute prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting the enactment of any law expressly authorizing black-white interracial marriage remained intact until the recent referendum.

That an expression of official opposition to interracial marriage remained a part of the Alabama Constitution for so long reflects the fear and loathing of black-white intimacy that remains a potent force in American culture. Sobering, too, was the closeness of the vote; 40 percent of the Alabama electorate voted against removing the obnoxious prohibition. Still, given the rootedness of segregation at the marriage altar, the ultimate outcome of the referendum should be applauded. The complete erasure of state-sponsored stigmatization of interracial marriage is an important achievement in our struggle for racial justice and harmony.

As portrayed by D'Emilio, the final third of Rustin's life was a busy but anticlimactic denouement that largely accounts for the decline of his reputation among many on the left. It was a period marked by fealty to the Democratic Party, vocal hostility to the Black Power movement, quietude regarding the Vietnam War and fervent support for Israel. After having spent most of his career deep in the political wilderness, Rustin now found himself welcome at the LBJ White House and celebrated by leading institutions of higher education, including Yale and Harvard, which bestowed honorary degrees upon him.

Before the late 1970s, Rustin spent little if any energy advancing the cause of equal treatment for lesbians and gays. During the final decade of his life, however, he began to speak out in support of the gay liberation movement. One influence prompting this change, suggests D'Emilio, was Walter Naegle, a younger man with whom Rustin fell in love (and legally adopted for purposes of estate planning). Naegle convinced Rustin to support vocally such measures as a sexual-orientation antidiscrimination ordinance in New York City. He also helped to persuade Rustin to address organizations like Black and White Men Together. Speaking to this group in 1986, Rustin remarked that "the barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group which is most mistreated," and that now "the new 'niggers' are gays." D'Emilio notes, however, that even with Rustin's forays into gay politics, he was never quite of it. The year before Rustin died in 1987, gay activist Joseph Beam invited Rustin to contribute to an anthology of writings by black gay men. "After much thought," Rustin responded, "I have decided that I must decline.... I did not 'come out of the closet' voluntarily--circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. The credit for that belongs to others.... While I support full equality, under law, for homosexuals, I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter."

D'Emilio obviously believes that Rustin's sexual life is and should be a matter of public interest. Yet his exploration of that side of Rustin's existence is notably sterile. Readers learn from him little about either what Rustin found sexually attractive or what others found sexually attractive about Rustin. Furthermore, D'Emilio refrains from exploring the racial aspects of Rustin's sexual life, even as he describes the troubles his homosexuality caused him in a homophobic society. He writes that Rustin was particularly attracted to white men. But D'Emilio refrains from commenting upon the meaning of that apparent preference. Was it truly a racial preference? Or did the pattern merely reflect the demographics of the social circles in which Rustin traveled? If the pattern was truly racial, did it arise from an aesthetic-erotic hankering or did it signal something else, perhaps even a distaste for black male affection? Given D'Emilio's interest in the sexual character of Rustin's life, one might have expected a more searching examination of why it was that all of Rustin's serious, open romantic relationships involved white men. There is no disapproval of Rustin's sexual interracialism in this criticism of D'Emilio, only a wish that he had pushed even further to excavate Rustin's innermost perceptions.

D'Emilio's biography is explicitly an attempt to rehabilitate a figure who, in the author's opinion, has been ignored by the general public and maligned by the left as an apostate who surrendered his radicalism for access to political influence that proved to be illusory. To a large extent D'Emilio makes a persuasive case for Rustin's importance. A solid understanding of the fascinating intersection of pacifist, socialist and antiracist social movements does require more than a passing knowledge of Bayard Rustin.

On occasion, however, D'Emilio excessively puffs his subject's significance. According to D'Emilio, Rustin "insinuated nonviolence into the heart of the black freedom struggle." This suggests that before Rustin there existed substantial support for resorting to violence, which is simply not so. The influence of Rustin's pacifist gospel on blacks was Lilliputian in comparison to what has decisively driven black protest into nonviolent means of expression--a prudent and pervasive recognition that blacks are greatly outnumbered by a population with access to police and military forces that are all too willing to suppress blacks ruthlessly. Similarly overstated is D'Emilio's suggestion that Rustin has been peculiarly victimized by omission or amnesia. Compared with Fannie Lou Hamer, Modjeska Simkins, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, James Hinton, Victor Rabinowitz and other unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, Rustin has actually received considerable acknowledgment. As noted at the outset, he has now been lionized in three biographies.

The result of D'Emilio's attempt to defend Rustin against charges of apostasy also yields mixed results. He convincingly rebuts the most tendentious of these charges--the claims that Rustin became nothing more than an exotic establishment "house nigger," a neoconservative, a shill plain and simple for Big Labor and Israel. True, Rustin did invite condemnation from some quarters on the left by repudiating the sloganeering of Black Power; cussing out the likes of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton; taking the side of the mostly white and Jewish United Federation of Teachers union in its ugly and rancorous battle with blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York City; and continuing to promote integration and nonviolent coalition politics. Rustin was especially contemptuous of cultural black nationalism. "Wearing my hair Afro style, calling myself an Afro-American, and eating all the chitterlings I can find," he quipped, "are not going to affect Congress."

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