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Bayard Rustin


By Harold A. Mcdougall

After the much-publicized "Black Power" controversy, it is refreshing to see the subtleties of agreement, as well as disagreement among Negro leaders. On "Meet the press," for the benefit of the mass media, they may heatedly disagree. But there is at least one objective they all have in common -- the well-being of the American Negro. The "generational gap," as the cliche has it, is considerably less than tremendous.

Bayard Rustin's recent visit to Harvard as an Honorary Associate of the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics provided an opportunity to better understand this fact. Rustin is one of the Grand Old Men of the Negro Movement. But his long experience in social activism brings him much closer in spirit than his contemporaries to his more strident successors. From singing with Leadbelly in the '30's to protest movements in America, England, South Africa and India -- not to mention two marches on Washington in the space of 20 years -- Rustin's life has been a busy and colorful one.

Rustin's central concern in the civil rights movement is now somewhat more subdued. As the movement shifts from "protest to politics," he says, "it behooves Negroes to cultivate allies in the ranks of liberals and labor." The massive Freedom Budget of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, of which Rustin is presently Executive Director, is predicated upon this thesis.

The thesis came under considerable fire during his stint at the Kennedy Institute. Some stressed the incompatibility of labor's long-run interests with those of the Negro, especially on the local level. Others stressed the exigencies of Vietnam and the need to ally with peace groups. (Rustin, whose career as a pacifist stems back to a jail sentence in 1943 for conscientious objection, chuckled noticeably.) Rustin's response was twofold: he agreed with those who stressed the contributions of the peace movement and the qualifications upon his proposed alliance; but he also expressed concern about the possibility of a more attractive alternative. "Present me with an alternative," he said, as he has said before. "If you can come up with a viable alternative, I will certainly consider it."

Although his questioners could think of qualifications to the liberal-labor coalition, few came up with alternatives. One SDS-er suggested that white radicals should arm and intensify the impact of ghetto riots. (It was suggested after the meeting that the radicals would do better to stage an armed invasion of the suburbs; hopefully, the ghetto residents would follow.)

In one seminar, the alternative suggested by "Black Power" -- the establishment of a political power base in the Negro ghetto -- met with Rustin's qualified approval. "Of course, when I go to Walter Reuther," he said, "Reuther has the upper hand." This stems from the fact that the Negro has little to bargain with. In his present disorganized and powerless position, he is of necessity the junior partner in any alliance.

In commenting upon "Black Power," however, Rustin felt that the institutions of the Negro community should be involved in any organizing effort, that the middle classes should be concentrated upon, and that it should be fun. "You've got to have some fun, because we are a fun-loving people." Of course the lighter aspects should in no way supercede the more down-to-earth requirements of organization.

While stressing Stokely Carmichael's drive and creativity, Rustin did express concern at the following which the young radical has acquired among Negroes attending college. What disturbed Rustin most was Carmichael's lack of a program, a concern which the Negro members of the seminar assured him that they shared. They thanked him for his clarification of the issues and for the opportunity to appreciate the contributions that have been made, and continue to be made, by the "older generation."

Rustin replied, "It was inevitable that Booker T. Washington -- a man whose accomplishments are too often underrated -- be succeeded by Du Bois, and Du Bois by A. Phillip Randolph. So today, when Randolph says to me, 'Bayard, I just don't understand what these kids are saying today. I don't understand them. Do you?' I tell him, 'No, Phillip. But don't worry about it. You didn't understand Washington or Du Bois, and they didn't understand you.'"

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