Why Bayard Rustin is Forgotten?

At the right hand of Martin Luther King was an uncomfortable genius whose legacy has been silenced. History keeps this kind of uncomfortable people in a loft. Barack Obama awarded him a medal, but the rise of Donald Trump and racial tension has wiped him off the map. I refer to Bayard Rustin, promoter of the March on Washington in 1963: black, homosexual, and socialist.

Why Bayard Rustin is forgotten?

Coleman Hughes, an expert on racial issues for The New York Times, has broken the silence on Rustin with an impassioned column. Reactions have been divided between relieved applause, awkward silence, and offensive attack on the columnist, proving that Rustin’s ideas were as bold in 1963 as they are now. 

In his time, his stance earned him bitter and powerful hatred. They saw him arguing on television with Malcolm X, shaming his racial pride, reminding him that only the union of the poor, regardless of race, would bring social justice. One might have thought that the passage of time would be benevolent to his legacy, but it has not been so. Let’s see why.

We thus live in the paradox that anti-white supremacist movements are not anti-racist but representatives of “good racism.” In this way, the movement to respond to the racist aggressions of the police, Black Lives Matter, has led to a storm of digital and media activism dedicated to branding as racist anyone who dares to discuss them and that attacks with special anger those it considers traitors. A supremacist president whips up whites, making them believe they are the new marginal minority.  

Good time, then, to remember Rustin and vindicate his ideas. Geniuses have the amazing ability to please no one and he, like Camus and Orwell, ended up placed between several fires. He never seemed to care. He was Martin Luther King’s right-hand man in organizing the mass marches, instructing him on the concept of passive resistance, but his ideas were always heterodox. 

Already in the fifties, he was concerned that a section of the activists of the Civil Rights Movement would prioritize the divisive trait of race over the concept of social class. In the sixties, he predicted that the struggle for emancipation could degenerate into an endless battle if it did not evolve. He proclaimed that the only solution would be to change the focus of the struggle so that blacks and poor whites would unite. An idea that, to some extent, King also expressed in some of his speeches, but that earned him animosities with the sectors that favor African American pride.

Rustin’s social class perspective served the treacherous attack on the Civil Rights Movement and defame Martin Luther King, who, after the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, became a figure who was not convenient to harass directly from the State. Hoover pointed to Rustin and said he was filling King’s head with communist ideas. However, he left activism in 1965 and joined the Labour branch of the Democratic Party. Then the predictable happened: whoever was arrested and beaten by the police twenty-four times, who inspired the genius idea of passive resistance, was then listed as a traitor by many of his fellow blacks.

But Rustin also found no accommodation in his new realm. As Hughes recalls, Rustin attacked what he considered the “white progressive syndrome,” namely the hateful tendency of blacks to turn blacks into the detergent to clean up their sense of guilt. Today, something that seems widespread in the identity left and that, in the words of Rustin, is nothing more than a sophisticated form of racism. “Blacks have been used and exploited in many ways by white Americans, but only recently have they been asked to satisfy the masochistic desire of disenchanted progressives for flogging and rejection.” While some economically exploit blacks, others exploit them culturally as a means of absolution.

 Bayard Rustin insisted that no one should be valued based on their color or sexual orientation, for better or worse. He fought for black rights and gay rights but avoided pride or self-absorption. He wrote that the goal of social justice is on the other side of economic inequality, and there is nothing more transversal to identities than poverty. It is not difficult to understand why they have forgotten it. And why the ideas of this singular man, who died in 1987, are so necessary today.