On Trustin’ Rustin
By Brenton Crozier
Like most, I had never heard of Bayard Rustin until Al told me that we were doing an entire episode about him. I think in these infancy stages we were all still referring to him as Bay-erd. Anyway, like most people do now, I Googled him and stumbled upon his Wikipedia page (can you imagine that sentence 5 years ago?). It didn’t take long for my personal political proclivities to feel incited about the prospect of this hour-long special. I could hear it in my head, “This is State of the Re:Union and our show today is about a gay communist turned socialist.” Where do you go from there?
To put the episode in a more clear context, Rustin is the subject of our Black History Month special. I have often wondered about the relevance of Black History Month and why individuals who should be celebrated at any point during a calendar year are relegated to one month . . . one cold, short month. Anyhow, I’m getting sidetracked.
It didn’t take long to learn that Rustin was one of those rare individuals that truly transcended labels and always fought being defined by them. And here’s the cool part, he didn’t do so in word so much as he did in action. Bayard Rustin’s directness never allowed for speculation about his motives or goals. I was assigned the task of transcribing Rustin’s 1967 Freedom Budget speech. While transcription may not be the most exciting work, it gave me the chance to get familiar with what Rustin had to say and provided a little insight into what he was about.
There were two things in particular that not only caught my ears, but things that warmed me up to this man . . . that started to make me wonder if we have any modern Bayard Rustins and who they were. That’s a question I’m still pondering and I’ll get back to you if I have an answer. First, this man was laying out specifics. He didn’t spout empty platitudes about what the government should and shouldn’t do, he laid it down in detail. His message was not only clear, it was obtainable. Rustin wasn’t trying to sell his own brand and perpetuate his own relevance by laying out impervious demands or expectations. The other part of it is that his specifics were laid out to be applicable for the time and based on real solutions to real problems. He didn’t take the easy way out by tugging on people’s emotional strings.
Secondly, he showed courage in telling his audience that they were approaching things in the wrong light, that the problem was not “a psychological one and one of just plain hatred.” He went on to say that the argument for black power was the wrong one because dignity had to first come from economic and social position and that “no economic or social order has ever been developed on the basis of color.” That’s a powerful statement and truly urges all people to not only accept that these issues are an all encompassing human problem, but one that needs pragmatic solutions in tangible reform . . . not the feel-goodery of empty, so-called symbolic gestures. Our leaders could learn so much from just this sentiment alone. So many of our solutions carry no real implications today, just emotional ones that make people feel even more polarized than when they started.
So it turns out that Bayard is my kind of guy. I don’t have to agree with everything he said, did or stood for and I don’t, but his motives were not those of self-preservation or manipulating to perpetuate his own relevance (you listening D.C.?). He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, tell you exactly where he was coming from and was always willing to put his words into action. From his staunch support of Israel and his pragmatic approach to the biggest issues of his day to his complete uniqueness that manifested itself in his music and so many other ways, Rustin is a model for leadership and change when change is needed, not when it feels good to say it.