Podcast / Start Making Sense / Dec 7, 2023

Randi Weingarten on the Peace Movement in Israel; Gary Younge on Rustin

Randi Weingarten on the Peace Movement in Israel; Gary Younge on ‘Rustin’

On this episode of Start Making Sense, the AFT president reports on her recent trip to Israel, and the former Guardian correspondent talks about the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

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Randi Weingarten on the Peace Movement in Israel; Gary Younge on ‘Rustin’ | Start Making Sense with Jon Wiener
byThe Nation Magazine

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, spent Thanksgiving weekend in Israel; she reports on meetings with shared society groups and peace movement leaders, and on the role of the US in bringing not just peace but equality and justice to Palestinians.

Also: Who was Bayard Rustin before the 1963 March on Washington? Gary Younge comments on the remarkable life of a gay Black pacifist and former communist, the subject of a new biopic on Netflix, ‘Rustin.’ Gary wrote “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream.”

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(AP)

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, spent Thanksgiving weekend in Israel. She’s on this episode of the podcast to report on meetings with shared society groups and peace movement leaders. She’ll also discuss the role of the US in moving toward not only peace but also equality and justice to Palestinians.

Also on this episode: Who was Bayard Rustin before the 1963 March on Washington? Gary Younge comments on the remarkable life of a gay Black pacifist, former communist, and subject of a new Netflix biopic, Rustin. Gary is the author of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

“Renters are the sleeping giants of LA politics,” plus the Hidden History of AIDS | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

A political battle is underway in Los Angeles, where landlords, multi-millionaires, and the police are trying to defeat the leading progressive on the city council. Their key issues are protection for renters and new taxes on mansions.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: A new podcast brings us stories from the early days of HIV & AIDS. It's about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color and the people who refused to stay out of sight. WNYC's Kai Wright and The Nation's Lizzy Ratner are behind the new show, Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington in 1963,  is the subject of a new biopic on Netflix – Gary Younge will comment on the man, and the movie. But first: Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, reports on her recent trip to Israel. That’s coming up – in a minute.


[BREAK]

Now it’s time to talk about Israeli politics and American politics. For that we turn to Randi Weingarten. She’s president of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers, with more than 1.7 million members in more than 3,000 locals nationwide. We reached her today in Jacksonville, Florida. Randi Weingarten, welcome to the program.

Randi Weingarten: It is great to be with you, Jon, and great to be from lovely Jacksonville Airport doing this podcast.

JW: What are you doing in Jacksonville?

RW: Well, look, I’m in schools all the time or in work sites all the time, and we have at this moment, this really crazy moment in this country where there’s so much division and so much fear. There’s also so much potential for the union movement to rise because workers really want to be part of unions, but you have to show up and you have to be there with your members.

JW: Before you went to Jacksonville, you went to Israel. This was during Thanksgiving week. What kind of trip was that?

RW: Well, as many people know, both my wife, who is a congregational rabbi at the largest LGBTQ shul  in the world, and I, have both together as well as separately spent years and years and years trying to lift up shared society in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. 

We both are still, I know it’s a tough term to say, progressive Zionists, but we are very critical of the failures of not only the Netanyahu government, but of the fascists that are part of his government, the atrocities on the West Bank, but also understand the potential of what Israel was supposed to be from the 1948 declaration, and have spent a lot of time really fighting for a shared future for two peoples.

So in some ways, this was both a shiva call in light of what happened on October 7th and the atrocities by Hamas, which we believe is a terrorist organization, but at the same time really focused on how there is a future and a shared future. Palestinians have rights and need to have their rights protected, and that includes ensuring that there is not the kind of deprivation that we’re seeing in Gaza right now.

And so all of this has rolled up into wanting to walk the walk with our friends and family and colleagues like at the Hand in Hand schools in Israel, the Arab-Jewish schools in Israel, like with standing together, like with the parents circle, like with all of those who really have tried to create a shared future, one in which both Jews and Arabs can live with the opportunities they need with equality, with freedom, and with security. So instead of being with our own families for Thanksgiving, we were with our Israeli and our Palestinian families in Israel.

JW: The week that you were there, there was a ceasefire. There were hostage releases. Of course, this week the ceasefires ended. Israel is back to bombing and destroying now in Southern Gaza, and the hostage releases have ended at least temporarily. I want to ask a little bit about the politics around the hostage releases, which were going on when you were there. Of course, this was good news for Israeli Jews, but still must have been traumatic and a vivid reminder of what happened on October 7th.  And I wonder about the movement demanding, “Bring Them Home,” as this movement is called. They’ve had a demonstration as big as 100,000 people in Tel Aviv. To what extent does the demand for hostage returns – is that part of a criticism of Netanyahu, or is that kind of just laying the groundwork for more revenge?

RW: Netanyahu had no – it seemed from the first few days of this terrible war, and I am in complete anguish about the continued and renewed bombing, we have called for humanitarian causes, there is no long-term military solution. I understand Israel’s right to defend itself and deal with what Hamas did in its terrible, brutal way, the rapes, the killings, all of that. But I am in anguish about the renewed bombing and about the death of Palestinian civilians and children.

Let me just be clear about that. Netanyahu made a deal with the people who voted for him over the course of the last 15 or 20 years, which was in exchange for his style of governing, which I’ve never been a Netanyahu fan, he would keep people safe. He would manage the conflict, not make peace. All of that exploded on October 7th. But what you saw is a Netanyahu administration, his coalition, who didn’t care about the hostages.

And what happened was that civil society, frankly, the group of people, the groups of civilian activists and civil activists, including reservists in the army, who had been on the front lines of the every Saturday demonstrations that had happened for months and months and months, Sharon and I were at one of those demonstrations in April, that they moved into, immediately into acting as civil society because the government was doing nothing to help the people whose lives had just been completely demolished in the Gaza envelope, many of whom, by the way, had been long-term peace activists like Vivian Silver.

And so first, they were helping move people, get them to places of safety. There were former generals that were in there helping their families escape. But then when it was understood how many hostages, who the hostages were and how many there were, this same group of families and activists started the fight to bring the hostages home. And so I was at the demonstration in Tel Aviv with 100,000 people that Saturday. There is a push, a real push, by Israeli society to bring hostages home.  And that that had to be, and is, as important as any other goal of this war. And so the hostage families are irate. Irate is not even a – it’s worse than irate at Netanyahu for not waiting, for not bringing more hostages home, for not bringing all the women and children home, for not trying to get more out. But this is society acting and saying, ‘We need to be of team humanity. We need to all focus on the basic humanity of people, including the hostages that are there.’

And frankly, the week that we were there, a few days before the ceasefire and then the ceasefire, every Israeli TV set was focused on those hours of the hostage transfer and the heartbreak. There’s trauma all over. There’s trauma in Israeli Arab society. There’s trauma in Israeli Jewish society. There’s trauma all over. But the entire, at least the society that we talk to, is all focused on bringing hostages home.

JW: Seems like a prerequisite to any long-term resolution requires replacing Netanyahu, having a new government. I wonder what you think are the chances that a new government post Netanyahu might even be worse than Netanyahu’s present government?

RW: I can only hope that it would be better. We spent a lot of time with union colleagues, who frankly in Israel are far more conservative than union colleagues in the United States. We spent a lot of time with people broadly through the ideological spectrum. And there’s not a person we know who believes in this government. In fact, this Netanyahu government – I mean, it’s fascinating because they do actually believe in – and we heard this from Arabs, as well as Jews, because we spent a lot of time with people in the mixed cities and with our Arab friends as well–  the only hope they have is for the West, including and most particularly Joe Biden, to help create a path forward. They have more faith and confidence in Joe Biden than they do in anybody in the Israeli government right now. And even the unions there this week, the head of Histadrut has said that there should be new elections right now and Netanyahu should not run. So I think that there’s a need for a reset. We all know why Netanyahu is serving. He thinks this is the way to stay out of jail, the same way as Trump and other autocrats operate.

But there is so much that hangs in the balance in terms of a way forward. And ultimately for us, this is a matter of there are two people who deserve equality, who deserve freedom, who deserve opportunity, who deserve peace and security, and we as Americans need to help do whatever we can to support what happens the day after, at the same time as we try to get the hostages out and try to push the Israeli government to absolutely minimize this humanitarian crisis and the killing of innocents in Gaza. What a world we live in, Jon. What a world.

JW:   Yes, yes.  What should Americans who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians be doing right now?

RW: So look, I am a member of J Street, and so I believe in doing what J Street is doing right now, which is to push very hard for the hostilities to end, the cessation of violence. The word ceasefire is fraught, but I would actually say there needs to be a bilateral ceasefire, one in which Hamas is demilitarized, the killings are stopped, and that there is an Arab-led government in Gaza and in the Palestinian Authority. There needs to be the muscle of two states or two places for two peoples, knowing full well that security is going to be a very, very big issue.

But it’s clear that the process of managing the conflict did not work. It’s clear that trying to create peace and ignore Palestinian issues does not work. There needs to be what Oslo started in terms of ensuring that two peoples have rights and have basic humanity and basic dignity and a shared future. And so for Americans, regardless of where one is in terms of the spectrum, there’s lots of people who have very, very different views than I do.  People need to be able to express those views without violence, without incitement. There needs to be academic freedom, but we also need to make sure that the spate and the increase in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia need to be staunched, need to be stopped. People deserve to live in peace in America and safely in America.  So at the same time as I hope and pray and believe in the push that President Biden is making to say that there’s an understanding that the Israelis have a right to fight this war against Hamas, but one has to minimize casualties of civilians and one has to make sure that there is as much focus on the day after in terms of peace and shared society and a shared future of Israeli Jews and of the Arab and Palestinian communities.

JW: Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, just back from Israel. Randi, thanks for talking with us today.

RW: Thank you.

[BREAK]

Jon Wiener: Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, is the subject of a new biopic on Netflix called simply Rustin. For comment, we turn to Gary Younge. He’s a long-time Guardian reporter and columnist, now professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. He’s also a writer for The New York Review, a member of The Nation editorial board and a Type Media fellow. And this year he was awarded the Orwell Prize. He’s written several books including The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, it’s out now in an updated edition. We reached him today at home in London. Gary, welcome back.

Gary Younge: Thanks for having me, Jon.

JW: If people know who Bayard Rustin is, they know he organized the March on Washington. But who was Bayard Rustin before August 28th, 1963?

GY: A very interesting character. He had been a communist. He was a member of the Young Communist League. He was gay. He had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He was a Quaker and was involved in pacifist activities, so not your average civil rights person at all, let alone civil rights leader. And he was an organizer first and foremost, and he had also 10 years before the March on Washington been arrested for a lewd act involving two other men, kind of a moment in his past that comes to haunt him in reality and in the film.

JW: The issue facing the filmmakers here is given this extraordinary life, where do you start his story? This biopic has a fascinating beginning. Not in 1963 getting ready to organize the March on Washington. They start in 1960 with the preparations for a different demonstration. The Democratic National Convention was about to be held in Los Angeles. That’s where Kennedy was set to be nominated as the candidate. That’s the starting point of the documentary. What is the story there involving Rustin and how does it work in this movie?

GY: Well, Rustin wants King to March on the convention and to make the support of African Americans for Kennedy contingent on Kennedy’s support for civil rights legislation. And King is reluctant to do so. He’s very reluctant to do so. Rustin persuades him, and then King finds himself coming up against some of the other members of the sometimes called “the Big Four” or “the Big Six,” Roy Wilkins of NAACP, James Farmer of Core and others, and Adam Clayton Powell, Congressman from Harlem, these institutions within the African American community who were saying, ‘Who do you think you are?’

And in that, we see a couple of things. We see Rustin’s mischief-making and his need to constantly push the political establishment, the political establishment within Black America, but also, so that they can push the broader political establishment to force them out of their comfort zones and into open conflict with power. We see his somewhat precarious relationship with King and other leaders, and therein for me lies something of a criticism with the film. And we see the conservative nature with the small “c” of the civil rights leaders.

If you follow what happens with the 1960 demonstration all the way through, you see them being deeply uncomfortable about Bayard Rustin’s homosexuality and deeply wary of doing anything that may sort of muddy the waters. There is clear good and bad in the South. There is clear good and evil. But then when you get to national politics and Kennedy and the Democrats, then things get more murky and they don’t want to rock the boat and Rustin becomes the personification of that desire to rock the boat because you know what? Not enough of the African Americans were in the boat to start with.

JW: I thought that was the best thing about the movie and the smartest thing about the way they did this, which is that the central drama that emerges from this 1960 argument is not a fight between the civil rights movement and the segregationists and the racists. Their opposition is taken for granted. The central drama is not between the civil rights movement and the Democrats. The lack of enthusiasm of the Democratic Party is taken for granted. They note almost in passing that Bobby Kennedy wants the March on Washington canceled. But that’s really not what this is about. The central drama of the film is the argument within the civil rights movement between the activists and the establishment between, let’s call it the left and the center, the problem of finding the best strategy for pushing Kennedy and the liberals to take action. 

And of course, this is a problem of our lives and our time too: What kind of concessions and compromises are justified in the name of building a broader movement and winning some kind of victory that will be partial and incomplete? What kinds of concessions and compromises are too much? What should you not abandon because liberal allies demand that you do so? In fact, Rustin and his people give up a lot in the March on Washington planning. They wanted to surround Kennedy’s White House. They wanted to have a picket line around the White House. Abandoned because the liberal leaders say that’s too much. They wanted direct lobbying of every member of Congress. Canceled. They wanted tents on the mall. Abandoned. And what they got in exchange for this is participation and support from a much broader group of liberals, especially the labor movement in the United States, which really mattered in 1960, especially Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers. They have a lot of people, they have a lot of money, they have a lot of political clout in the Democratic Party. So this to me is a very interesting way to make a movie about the March on Washington.

GY: Yeah, it does a good job of highlighting the conservatism within the movement which relates to social issues. So there is some tension over the fact that no women get to speak at the March. They get to sing, but not speak. I would describe it slightly differently, and this is where I think that – well, there’s a few ways in which I think the film falls down – is less the kind of tension between the center and the left is between the base and the leadership, that throughout particularly that year in ’63, you see the leadership of the civil rights movement not wanting to have a March, wanting to keep close to the Kennedys, and they keep being outmaneuvered and outstripped by events, particularly in Birmingham that year, which kind of changes everything.

And so, they are kind of pretty much bounced into the March by the force from below, which you kind of get glimmers of here and there. I mean, my feeling about the movie is that it would’ve been better as a kind of four-part, five-part series. We get to work with those bits of Rustin’s character that we are now prepared to work with. So him being gay, which is no longer quite the taboo it was, still an issue, still a challenge, but not the challenge that it was. But we don’t get to see him as a communist. We don’t get to see him as a conscientious objector. We don’t get to see him as a Quaker. We don’t get to see those ways in which both culturally and politically he is not aligned with the mainstream of the Civil Rights Leadership Church and so on.

But there is still a community, small but existing of people who are either fellow travelers or members or former members of the Communist party who are involved in the civil rights movement. We don’t get to engage with the forces that create Bayard Rustin. When we see him, he’s formed and that makes it more of a film about Rustin and the March on Washington than it is a film about Rustin, which means that there’s scope for more films about Rustin. I mean, how many films have we had about King? How many films have we had about Kennedy, Bobby, John, all of them? We need more time with Rustin than we were given.

JW: You wrote the book on the speech, King’s speech. You know a lot about preparations for the March, the day of the March. How did this version of the story of August 28th compare with what you learned? What did they miss? What did they correctly emphasize?

GY: They got it mostly right, and there were some details that they went for which were good: t the moment where he shows Eleanor Holmes, I think it is, the blank sheet. When Rustin comes onto the mall, the story that I know, it’s slightly different to the way it’s told in the film, but that’s okay. He comes onto the mall and the press are like, ‘where is everybody? How do you know that people are going to come? You said 200,000.’ And Rustin looks at his notebook and then turns and says, “Gentlemen, we are right on schedule.” But his notebook is completely empty.

I mean, the audacity of this March, they do broach, but on the day, I felt that there was more drama actually. I mean, interestingly for a – so there is a whole load of horse-trading that goes on about who’s going to speak first and who’s going to speak last, and the preening and cock strutting and the kind of jealousy around King and how much time he gets. And in the end, they say, ‘fine, he can speak last, but he only gets eight minutes.’ And Rustin thinks ‘fine’ because it’s last, and what are you going to do, kick him off the stage?

On the day of the March itself, you have John Lewis, to become a congressman from Georgia, a great leader in SNCC, who’s the young firebrand and who has a speech that talks about marching through the South as Sherman did. And the unions in particular have connections about this speech. And there was an intense negotiation that takes place at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial taking out bits of his speech that would most cause offense. And most of the people that I spoke to who were on the March talk about not – they say John Lewis’s was the best speech of the day in the moment, King’s has carried the history, and in the end, it’s resolved by A. Philip Randolph who I think doesn’t get – he was the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union man, an African American who is really Rustin’s ally in most of this stuff.

And A. Philip Randolph says to John Lewis, “Young man, I’ve been waiting for this day all of my life. Will you please, please make this work?” But I felt that in order to foreground Rustin’s relationship with King, which of course he did have a good relationship with King, they actually took away a lot of Rustin’s relationship with A. Philip Randolph, which is central to it because Randolph is the person who pushes for the March.

JW: I’m so glad you brought up the censoring of John Lewis’s speech. I looked that up. You can find it online, Lewis’s original speech annotated with what was changed. He calls on the civil rights movement to “march until the revolution is complete,” and he was forced to change that to say “march until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” Just two words, but it’s a big change.

GY: Well, yes. So much of what happened that day was about enveloping the demand for civil rights within American mythology. It’s a dream as true as the American dream, as King says. But that’s the other thing about that day, which is evoked but not quite stressed. I don’t mind this so much because I’m more interested in Rustin for this film than I am in ’63, but the degree to which Washington DC was militarized on that day, the amount of violence that they expected with aircraft carriers poised to come in with all – I mean, they do talk about all policemen having their leave canceled, but you don’t get the sense of the degree of militarization that was prepared for that day.

JW: They have one line where the chief of the Washington Police, very hostile to the whole thing, tells Rustin that there are 20,000 active-duty soldiers standing by, and Rustin has a great comeback to that.  And that they are closing all liquor stores in the District of Columbia starting at 6:00 AM.

GY: And the Congressmen have sent their female staff home.

JW: For the day, yes.

GY: For the day. Yes. And in the end, I think there are less than 10 arrests. I think it was just two or three, at least one of them was a white person. I mean, it was as peaceful a March as one might expect. I mean, in terms of organizing, which is where Rustin’s forte, in his element here, it was an incredible feat, not least because it had never really been done before.

JW: There’s one other thing that I thought was missing. The slogan of the March was “March for Jobs and Freedom.” Explain what that’s about.

GY: Well, it was partly about the inclusion of the union movement and the civil rights movement.  All of the ways in which people try still to complicate the relationships between race and class, and here we are in 1963 with a clear understanding that they’re really going to struggle class-wise if one group of people can be massively underpaid and that African Americans as a minority in America are not going to do it on their own. And so it is a mobilization of labor and minorities who understand their interest as being aligned. I think though there is something else taking place which Rustin alludes to not in the film, but later in his life, which is like, ‘okay, we now have the right to eat in any restaurant we wish, but we can’t afford what’s on the menu.’ What does it mean to have civil rights in the absence of economic rights, in the absence of economic equality? And so that element of “jobs and freedom” is a connection between the civil rights and the economic, which is absolutely vital, still vital.

JW: And completely missing from the Netflix film.

GY: Yeah.

JW: I did note one thing about the Netflix film. Its executive producers were Barack and Michelle Obama.

GY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and therein lies a story. Who knows if it wasn’t for them, and here we’re talking about what is strategic and what is not possible and what is possible, who knows if it wasn’t for them how long it would take to get a film like Rustin off the ground? I’m sure that their involvement shapes the politics of the entire project. 

There was one interesting kind of strange, strange shift, which is that at the end we see the NAACP leader, Roy Wilkins saying, “We’ve been invited in to see Kennedy,” as though somehow that was part of the goal of the March.  The truth is that they were invited in to see Kennedy before the March. The threat of the March got them in to see Kennedy, and that Kennedy asked them not to have a March. He said, “We want legislation, and we don’t want Negroes on the streets.” And A. Philip Randolph says, “The Negroes are already on the streets, Mr. President. And I doubt if we called them that they would come back,” which speaks to a real awareness of who’s running the show here. But I thought it was an interesting notion that like, ‘hey, we’ve had our March, now we’re off to see the president.’ And it’s like, well, actually the March was the thing that forced the brokering that made the president see them in the first place before the March ever took place.

JW: One personal note: my father took my fourteen-year-old sister to the March. They were in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and had some relatives who lived in suburban Washington who also came to the March.  And there’s a picture of them holding up a sign that says, “We March Together, Catholics, Jews, Protestants for dignity and brotherhood of all men under God – NOW!”

GY: Oh wow. Do you have a picture of that?

JW: My sister still has that picture and put it up on her Facebook page on the 60th anniversary of the March, which of course was last August.
Gary, any final thoughts about the movie and the man?

GY: I get a sense both from having read about him, I read the John D’Emilio biography and then other things that I read about the March for my book, and from seeing him in this, you get this sense, in the best possible way, of a man who doesn’t know his place. To be gay, to be Black, to be a former communist, to be a Quaker, to be a conscientious objector – there has to be some sense of fearlessness, which I’m sure would present as regal.

JW: Gary Younge.  He wrote the book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream. Gary, thanks for talking with us today.

GY: Thanks so much, Jon.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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