Bernie Sanders’ Embrace of Bayard Rustin’s Hopeful Message


It was nice to see a reference to Bayard Rustin and his seminal 1965, article “From Protest to Politics” in Professor Steven Conn’s “Bernie Sanders Meet Bayard Rustin” published in the Huffington Post.  Unfortunately, Conn offered a serious misreading of Rustin and consequently applied this distorted analysis to the Bernie Sanders’ campaign and his supporters.

Conn essentially argues that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are conflating protest with politics and thus are not being pragmatic enough in their campaign.  He cherry picks his quotes from Rustin’s article to argue that the esteemed civil rights leader merely expected politics to mean compromise.  Conn suggests that Sanders announce now what small concessions he is willing to make if elected President.  Absent from Conn’s piece are the details of Rustin’s political platform.

Conn simply proffers a simplistic narrative that Sanders and his campaign are not pragmatic politically (i.e., ideological, closed minded, not willing to “compromise”); this has become a widespread trope of the punditocracy and Clinton campaign.  The picture they paint is a major mischaracterization meant to confuse the public and/or it reflects a disturbing misunderstanding of the nature of power and politics.

Conn failed to contextualize Rustin’s article and the nature of Sanders’ campaign.  In fact, Rustin’s central argument in “From Protest to Politics” was twofold: 1) expand the voter base to oust the Dixiecrats and form political coalitions to help make the Democratic Party progressive; and 2) push an agenda of economic justice.

Take a moment to absorb that message and compare that to Conn’s mishandling.

Now consider how that echoes the message of a Vermont Senator by the name of Bernie Sanders.

Instead what is proposed by Conn is, with all due respect, a naïve understanding of power.  Rustin argued that the absence of power can have the same corrupting effect that too much power may have, an effective turn of phrase that we all need to consider.

Sanders speaks to the disempowerment that so many are experiencing (low wages, high debt, insecure work, and no or inadequate health insurance); the push to get out the vote is something that Rustin would have applauded and tried to lead.  Sanders call for political revolution of people getting involved in the political process mirrored exactly Rustin’s argument.

Rustin wrote that he failed “to see how the [Civil Rights] movement can be victorious in the absence of full employment, abolition of slums, the reconstruction of our educational system, new definitions of work and leisure.”   He called for a refashioning of “our political economy,” “to broaden our social vision,” “to develop functional programs with concrete objectives” but done on a massive scale to make a real difference.  (Citation: “From Protest To Politics,” Commentary, Feb., 1965)

As Conn well knows, Rustin’s article was written on the tail-end of years of protest; just one year later he coauthored  A Freedom Budget for All Americans, a major domestic program to end poverty that went further than the Great Society’s own initiatives.  The Freedom Budget was deemed impractical and politically out of reach at the time but yet it was central to Rustin’s political mission.  What is important to remember is that Rustin ardently pushed for the Freedom Budget and in fact was in the process of designing it while he wrote “From Protest to Politics.”

Sanders is running for President after several years of protest movements (1999 WTO protest, anti-war, immigrant rights, anti-incarceration, Occupy Wall Street, etc.).  The continued conservative leadership over the last 36 years dwindling and not furthering the accomplishments of the New Deal/Great Society has created a standstill–all this has been witnessed by an independent politician who was in the business of making “deals” and “compromising” and very often improving flawed legislation (take, for example, Sanders action on free community health clinics under both Bush and Obama’s ACA).

Just within the Democratic Party, we have seen the effort of the Democratic Leadership Council and, currently, the New Democrats to impose neoliberal ideas on so much public policy.  Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians have fought hard against these consistent assaults.

Steven Conn’s reading of Rustin’s essay, while surely well-intentioned, is inaccurate and misses its larger point and, even more importantly, how it fit into Rustin’s longer political efforts before and after its writing.  As central, Conn ignored how much Sanders’ career has followed Rustin’s advice and predilections.

Conn’s suggestion that Rustin would not be feeling “the Bern” reflects a poor understanding of the man and the current historical context.  I hope it would not be too presumptuous of me to suggest that Rustin, if alive today, would be supporting Bernie Sanders contrary to Conn’s speculation.  I believe the record speaks for itself.

Thomas Castillo, an Assistant Professor of History at Coastal Carolina University, is completing a labor and class history of early twentieth century Miami, Florida. He is also working on another book on the history of the right to work.