From Protest to Patronage
D'Emilio shows, however, that even as Rustin was taking what some derided as his conservative turn, he articulated demands for full employment, universal healthcare, the abolition of poverty, investment in public services and protections against invidious discriminations that were far more ambitious than anything envisioned by even the most visionary of the liberal champions of LBJ's Great Society proposals. While debating Stokely Carmichael, Rustin reaffirmed that "basic in the demands of the Negro people today is a fundamental challenge to this society. We are asking first of all for what this society does not want to hear: a redistribution of wealth.... This society must dig deep and be prepared to make revolutionary change in its economic and social life." It is arguable that the radical tenor of Rustin's rhetoric in the late 1960s was merely a vestige of his former persona that served to obscure his accommodation with cold war liberalism. In the late phase of his career, after all, Rustin sometimes seemed to spend as much (if not more) energy condemning dissidents on the left as he did condemning the establishment. Given the widespread image of Rustin's transformation--one that often exaggerates his drift toward the center--D'Emilio performs a real service by underlining the degree to which his hero, at least rhetorically, preserved his commitment to radical egalitarianism.
With respect to Rustin's conduct regarding the Vietnam War, D'Emilio is witheringly critical. He notes that Rustin spoke out vigorously against the war before the rise of a broadly based antiwar movement. But as the war escalated and the antiwar movement grew, Rustin's critical stance toward the Johnson Administration dramatically softened. He often seemed to become more exercised by perceived strategic gaffes on the part of antiwar activists than by LBJ's egregious war policy. By 1968, Rustin had ceased to have any substantial presence in the antiwar movement. "Search the anti-war movement's greatest moments," D'Emilio mordantly observes, "and Rustin's absence is glaring." This absence, he argues, reflects poorly on Rustin and underlines a tragic irony. "Rustin had shaped his public career by steadfastly advancing Gandhian nonviolence and had worked in pacifist organizations for more than two decades." Yet, "as a popular mass movement was building against American military action abroad, Rustin was choosing to avoid the issue. Having stood apart...as a radical pacifist, he was now standing apart from pacifism just when a cry for peace was reaching millions."
D'Emilio attributes Rustin's diffidence to a pragmatic decision. Grateful to LBJ for delivering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a down payment on the Great Society, Rustin was hopeful that more--much more--would be accomplished if LBJ (or his epigone, Hubert Humphrey) could somehow retain the White House. Although the war made him uncomfortable, Rustin muffled his objections for the purpose of supporting what he saw as the only political vehicle immediately capable of elevating the fortunes of the black masses--the liberal, albeit misguidedly hawkish, wing of the Democratic Party.
If all that entered into an assessment of Rustin was the wisdom of this calculation, a critic would be limited to censuring him, at worst, for being unwise. But one also has to wonder whether Rustin's decision was substantially influenced by his own personal needs and ambitions. D'Emilio rejects insinuations that Rustin was a bought man, limited in what he could say by his dependence for funding, travel and security on interests that tended to be monied, hawkish, Jewish and fiercely attached to Big Labor. But evidence lurking in the margins of D'Emilio's own account provides a substantial basis for believing that the insinuations are at least partly true. After bouncing around for many years from one penurious organization to the next as a freelance organizer, Rustin finally erected an institutional home for himself in the mid-1960s by founding and directing the A. Philip Randolph Institute (ARI). Named after Rustin's towering mentor, the ARI was largely bankrolled by George Meany's AFL-CIO. That sponsorship undoubtedly imposed certain boundaries on Rustin. Meany, after all, was an aggressive supporter of anti-Communist militarism, including LBJ's war policy in Vietnam. Of course, it was possible that Rustin's own belief structure kept him well within these boundaries without any need for outside constraint. But testimony quoted by D'Emilio from a number of Rustin's friends indicates that he recognized and accepted the confines of his new institutional home with some degree of self-conscious resignation. "You get tired after a while," he said to one friend, "and you have to come home to something comfortable and something you can count on."
There are other ways as well in which D'Emilio is insufficiently probing. He applauds Rustin's cosmopolitan disdain of nationalism, perhaps especially black nationalism. Yet, without comment, D'Emilio tells us that Rustin, the founder of the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, was unflaggingly supportive of Zionism. Since D'Emilio lauds Rustin's general distrust of nationalism as a form of tribal superstition, he should at the very least explain Rustin's very different attitude toward Jewish nationalism. Similarly, while he admiringly chronicles Rustin's pacifism (except for his evasiveness on Vietnam), D'Emilio says little about Rustin's outspoken insistence that the United States make Israel the indisputable military power in its region. D'Emilio cites Rustin's concession that the nature of his support for Israel "created a tension" with his pacifist beliefs. Yet D'Emilio refrains from probing the dimensions of this "tension" or commenting on Rustin's justification for it.
Clearly the justification was rooted in part in Rustin's genuine sympathy for Jews--a sympathy nourished by grief in the aftermath of the Holocaust, revulsion for Arab dictatorships, and friendships with the likes of Albert Shanker, Irving Howe and Max Schachtman. Rustin's expressions of sympathy also stemmed, however, from the realpolitik expressed in the aforementioned 1965 article, "From Protest to Politics." Perceiving Jews as an essential partner in the grand coalition on which he pinned his hopes for a politically ascendant and ideologically left-liberal Democratic Party, Rustin took care to indulge the sensibilities of this influential constituency.
Bayard Rustin was an exceptionally intelligent, brave and eloquent social reformer who wrestled mightily with the dilemmas that continue to bedevil progressives today. Did his gamble with the Democratic Party pay off? One cannot know for sure, of course. But it seems that the party moved him considerably more than he moved it. Intent upon gaining access to power and its attendant benefits, Rustin perhaps sacrificed too much of the authority he had accumulated over the years through his patient commitment to decent idealism.