Thoughts on Bayard Rustin Nostalgia

A Dustin Guastella article on Nonsite dated July 9th generated controversy because it opposed defunding the cops. Like Bernie Sanders, another opponent of defunding, Guastella proposed reforms that would satisfy everybody since they would lead to less crime. If there were massive increases in federal social spending, there would be more jobs and hence less desperation leading to crime. Such “class-based” measures might have made it possible for George Floyd to avoid being killed as Cedric Johnson argued in Jacobin: “His alleged use of counterfeit money reflects the criminally inadequate provision of income support.”

What caught my eye in Guastella’s article was his reference to Bayard Rustin, who warned about activists’ “psychic inability to fend off leftwing slogans which result in right-wing policy.” One of those slogans is defunding the cops. Since polls indicate that defunding is unpopular with Blacks and whites alike, we are cutting off support. Of course, black lives matter wasn’t very popular a few years ago as well. For Guastella, the need is to rebuild the alliance between the Black movement and labor of the early to mid-1960s when Rustin was a key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. This march concluded in a rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Just as importantly, Rustin helped pull together the conference that met in the fall to adopt a Freedom Budget. In many ways, the Freedom Budget was the Green New Deal of its day. Just as the Green New Deal would abolish climate change, so would the Freedom Budget abolish poverty—both Black and white. To move forward with such ambitious projects, it was necessary to elect politicians who understood their needs.

Like those ultraleftists who refused to become Sandernistas, some of us, including me, were on a different wave-length than Rustin. Guastella writes, “To return to Rustin, when he campaigned for the ‘Freedom Budget for All Americans’, he was roundly ignored by the youth-dominated activist New Left and the rising Black Power movement.

In a much longer article in Catalyst titled “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” Cedric Johnson made identical points. He wrote, “Although he would increasingly embrace a politics of insider negotiation during the sixties, veteran activist Bayard Rustin insisted that black progress could only be achieved through the development of broad, interracial coalitions dedicated to social democracy, a position that drew the ire of some Black Power radicals.”

You can also find ringing endorsements of Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget in Jeremy Gong and Eric Blanc’s article  in “The Call”, the magazine of the Bread and Roses caucus that shares Johnson and Guastella’s perspectives. For them, the Freedom Budget integrates class and race in the same way that Medicare for All does. What is needed today is a renaissance of the trade union movement and the civil rights movement that existed before the 1960s with its impetuous and unwise detour into latter-day Bolshevism and Black Power. Instead of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, isn’t it more practical to tread the path of Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin blazed?

Not every Black was gung-ho on the March on Washington labor-civil rights coalition. In one of his most famous speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots,” Malcolm X took his customary militant tack:

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.

So, why was Malcolm X so worked up? The answer is in Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates’s “A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today.”   They have written a riveting account of the behind-the-scenes machinations that kept both the march and the Freedom Budget toothless.

One of the pieces missing in the standard Jacobin/Nonsite/Bread and Roses narrative is the role of militant civil rights groups like SNCC that would soon become part of the Black Power movement that Cedric Johnson rejects so adamantly. If King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) had been calling the shots, the rally would have had a far more radical character. Instead, Bayard Rustin insisted on building a broad-based coalition that could mollify President Kennedy and the AFL-CIO’s top brass, including George Meany, who was funding A. Philip Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council.

Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League did everything they could to make the rally palatable to the White House and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. “Bayard always knew we would have to trade in militancy for numbers,” Norman Hill of the Congress of Racial Equality, a grass-roots civil rights organization, spoke of Rustin’s don’t rock the boar tendencies: “He probably let us put in militant actions [in the original plan] so he could trade it away. Four things mattered—numbers, the coalition, militancy of action, and militancy of words. He was willing to give up militant action for the other three.”

John Lewis, who is now a thoroughly compromised Black congressman from Georgia, was a member of SNCC in 1963 and their official speaker at the rally. Twenty-three at the time, he was no gradualist. Yates and Le Blanc report on the plot to “cancel culture” Lewis’s speech:

There are indications that the Kennedy administration had gotten a copy of it and applied pressure on moderate elements to have the speech killed. Washington archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who had agreed to deliver the invocation at the beginning of the march, threatened to pull all Catholic clergy out of the event. Walter Reuther and even King joined forces with Wilkins and Young to demand either a rewrite or yanking Lewis from the speakers’ list. Randolph and Rustin ran interference for the indignant SNCC activists, but also persuaded them to cut and soften the speech.

One can understand why Kennedy would be anxious to censor a speech that including such an indictment of the status quo:

We are now involved in a serious revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles?” The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? . . .

The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off ” period.

Rustin’s failure to take a hard stand against the Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy flowed from his close connections to Max Shachtman, a former Trotskyist, who by 1963 was a social democrat and anti-Communist. Some of his comrades played a key role in the drafting of the Freedom Budget, including Tom Kahn, who would become a senior assistant to and speechwriter for Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and AFL–CIO Presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland.

Kahn worked closely with Rustin on his famous 1965 Dissent article titled “From Protest to Politics. The article said that the days of marching in the streets were over. It was time to elect politicians sympathetic to the civil rights movement. Most importantly, it was necessary to reject identity politics, the bugaboo of both Jacobin’s stable of writers and Columbia University’s Mark Lilla. Rustin put it this way rather pithily: “Wearing my hair Afro style, calling myself an Afro-American, and eating all the chitterlings I can find are not going to affect Congress.” He also took to the pages of Commentary Magazine to denounce Black Power, just as Cedric Johnson turned to Catalyst:

I would contend that “black power” not only lacks any real value for the civil-rights movement, but that its propagation is positively harmful. It diverts the movement from a meaningful debate over strategy and tactics, it isolates the Negro community, and it encourages the growth of anti-Negro forces.

Keep in mind that SNCC, CORE and independent Black radicals broke from the Democratic Party because of the betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFPD). The MFPD’s goal was to replace the Dixiecrats at the 1964 DP convention. Theoretically, this would have meshed perfectly with Max Shachtman’s strategy of “realignment” that purged the DP of the southern racist and left it looking more like European social democratic parties. Following Shachtman’s instructions, Rustin defended a rotten compromise that would have seated the Dixiecrats with two non-voting delegates.

If this wasn’t enough to turn young Black activists into revolutionaries, it was the utter refusal to take a clear stand against the Vietnam war that completed the breach with Rustin and Shachtman’s reformist politics that continue now in DSA and Jacobin’s silence on the Biden campaign. Having read Guastella, Reed, Blanc, Gong, Johnson and all the rest of the Sandernista left that has indulged in Bayard Rustin nostalgia, I have yet to see a single reference to the war in Vietnam that was largely responsible for the collapse of the Freedom Budget movement. After Lyndon Johnson began escalating the war, the civil rights movement fractured with Roy Wilkins supporting the war and Bayard Rustin keeping mum. SNCC and CORE joined the SCLC in opposing it.

In 1965, Staughton Lynd took to the pages of Liberation magazine to hold Rustin to account. He wrote that “the coalition he advocates turns out to mean implicit acceptance of [Johnson] Administration foreign policy, to be a coalition with the marines.”

Even with Rustin’s willingness to kowtow to the White House on keeping the Dixiecrats in the big tent and refusing to speak out against the war (he was opposed to it), there was little chance that Lyndon Johnson would have implemented the Freedom Budget. Reading about it in the Yates and Le Blanc book struck me as little different from the Green New Deal. It might make sense to the average person but not to the big bourgeoisie. Racism serves a useful function in their control over working people. By maintaining a color bar, the ruling class can keep white workers on their side. The Reagan Democrats were one manifestation of this “divide and conquer” approach, and so are the white working-class votes for rightwing Democrats like Joe Manchin or even Joe Biden, whose much-vaunted “working across the aisle” led him to eulogize the late James Eastland, one the worst racists in the Senate: “He never called me ‘boy’, he always called me ‘son.’”

The Jacobin left has a delicate balancing act to carry out. It must continue to provide a platform for Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson in both Jacobin and Catalyst, where they demonize BLM as the wicked stepchild of the Black Power movement. On the other, they can’t come out against it because it is just too popular. Ironically, it is not even that close to the Black Panthers politically. It is mainly an expression of what Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her Project 1619 article last summer: “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone. Yet we never fought only for ourselves. The bloody freedom struggles of the civil rights movement laid the foundation for every other modern rights struggle.”

Hannah-Jones’s words are truer than ever. By rousing Americans against killer-cops, the George Floyd protests show the way forward for every insurgent movement. The unemployed demanding jobs. The essential workers forced into unsafe conditions. The college students deep in debt with no job prospects. Why should they go begging the Democratic Party for hand-outs? We turn up the heat until our demands are met. Ironically, Bayard Rustin understood this when he was about the same age as the BLM’ers out on the streets. He was for militant action and rejected the kind of class-reductionism so in fashion today in social-democratic circles:

In considering the alternative offered by the Socialist Party of the 1930s, Rustin had been put off by what he perceived as their notion that “only when you changed the economy into a socialist economy would blacks automatically get their civil rights.” Not inclined to wait, he was drawn to the Communist movement. “The Communists were passionately involved and I was passionately involved,” he later commented, “so they were ready-made for me.”

–Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates, “A Freedom Budget for All Americans”

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.