BY John D'Emilio ON February 4, 2015
Anniversaries are one of the useful tools that lovers of history have for drawing attention to important events in the past and encouraging a broader public to learn about and reflect upon a history that they might not have experienced themselves. These last few years especially have offered an opportunity to draw attention to the mass movements for peace and justice that flourished in the 1960s as we mark the 50th anniversary of key events from that decade – from the sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC to the iconic 1963 March on Washington to the voting rights campaign in Selma, which is getting an added layer of visibility through the magnificent film by the same name.
One individual who has posthumously benefited from this attachment to the golden 50th is Bayard Rustin. The build up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which Rustin organized, provided the perfect opportunity for President Obama to award Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. As a life-long agitator for justice whose work extended across four continents and more than half a century, who had an impact on issues ranging from racial justice to the nuclear arms race to the alleviation of poverty, and who played a major role in the development of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as a believer in non-violence, Rustin deserves this kind of retrospective recognition.
However, there’s one Rustin-related anniversary that probably won’t be receiving much recognition: the publication in February 1965, 50 years ago this month, of his essay “From Protest to Politics” in Commentary magazine. The essay – “political manifesto” might be a better description – is one of the reasons I decided to write a biography of Rustin. Coming from someone whose history to that point deserved the label of radical, the essay offered a provocative strategy for change that proved to be dramatically different from the direction that left radicals, whether among black power advocates or antiwar activists or emerging radical feminists, ended up taking.
“From Protest to Politics” was addressed most explicitly to activists in the black freedom struggle. But it can also be read as a call to his fellow activists in the pacifist movement, the growing antiwar movement, and other groups of the left. Rustin, who had spent more than two decades as a committed protester against injustice, inequality, and war, was telling his fellow activists on the left that, if they ever wanted to be more than protesters on the outside, they needed to begin developing a “coalition of progressive forces” with the intention of becoming “the effective political majority.” For Rustin that meant plunging into politics directly via the political party system. With Southern white segregationists leaving the Democratic Party in droves, the time seemed right to attempt to organize and capture the Democratic Party and transform it into an effective agency for progressive change.
Every election season, and this past November especially dramatically, I am struck by the irony that history offers. Rustin’s call was basically ignored by the great majority of his intended audience on the left. Instead, the commitment to protest, and to community organizing that maintained a distance from the political system, remained paramount. But another group of radicals did pursue a strategy akin to what Rustin called for. They were radicals of the right, not the left. In the wake of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, they began an intentional campaign to capture control of the Republican Party and make it a vehicle for a right-wing agenda. They succeeded probably far beyond their best hopes, and the rest of us live with the results of that success.
To fully appreciate the thinking that produced “From Protest to Politics” does require some familiarity with the history of the 1960s. But, even without that familiarity, reading it today is provocative and forces one to think about strategies for change. It is especially relevant for participants in identity-based movements, because it asks us to reflect upon how we propose to move beyond formal legal equality and how a movement with a particular “minority” constituency reaches beyond itself and its allies and creates something with a broad comprehensive agenda for justice, opportunity, equality, and fairness.