Who’s That Man Up There with Malcolm X?
By Tina Antolini
Hi there, I’m Tina Antolini, the newest member of the SOTRU gang. I started as a producer for the show a couple of weeks ago, and am just getting around to a formal blog-oriented introduction.
So, about the YouTube clip… When I first mention to friends that State of the Re:Union is dedicating its Black History Month special to the life and legacy of Bayard Rustin, the general response is: “Wha– Who?” Ask people to list heroes from the Civil Rights movement and certain names are practically guaranteed—MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Malcolm X—but Bayard Rustin’s is not usually among them. However, as all of us at SOTRU have been learning, Bayard Rustin (his first name is pronounced to rhyme with “fired”) was a crucial force behind the push for racial equality in the U.S., and especially in bringing the non-violent ideology of Gandhi to the movement in this country. He schooled some of those heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. among them, in using peaceful protest as a tool of political change. He was the mastermind behind one of the most famous days in 20th century American history: the 1963 March on Washington.
Rustin was also a complex character, and taking a close look at his complexities provides us with some sense of why I get so many blank stares when I mention his name to friends. Not only was Bayard Rustin a black man, he was gay man—and more open about his sexuality than many in his era. He was also a pacifist and a Quaker. In the time he was working as an activist and organizer, from the late 1930s through his death in the late ’80s, those characteristics could have amounted to “Three strikes and you’re out,” as far as involvement in American politics and public life. But Rustin managed to have an enormous impact on the issues he cared passionately about; he was able, it seems, to channel his personal experience of prejudice into extraordinary dedication to his cause. And, especially later in his career, he was surprisingly pragmatic about what was necessary to take an idea or belief from rhetoric to reality. After having gone to prison rather than fight in World War II, he infuriated some of his former activist allies by taking a more moderate stance on the Vietnam War, in an effort to create a political climate that would allow him to push through an economic agenda he believed would go far towards eradicating poverty. Perhaps this pragmatism was, in part, a product of having had to live a life constantly dancing around the social sensitivities of his era.
Rustin seems to have been trying to gauge when to push and when to let up, just as he had to learn when to stay behind the scenes as a gay man and when to take the spotlight. He was uncompromising on his principals, but, over the course of his career, he seemed to increasingly see compromise as an essential part of the political process. We’ll have much more about Bayard Rustin in State of the Re:Union full-hour radio show and on this site (www.stateofthereunion.com) in the coming weeks—his successes and failures, professional and personal, and his place in American history. In the meantime, watch him take on Malcolm X in this 1962 debate. Not just anyone could do that…