Bayard Rustin speaking at a rally in 1965. (Wikimedia Commons/Stanley Wolfson)

Bayard Rustin believed in affirmative action and systemic political change

Contrary to a New York Times op-ed that said Bayard Rustin opposed affirmative action, he adamantly sought systemic political change.
Bayard Rustin speaking at a rally in 1965. (Wikimedia Commons/Stanley Wolfson)

No one is perfect. That includes civil rights icon Bayard Rustin. That’s the message columnist Coleman Hughes and video producer Taige Jensen tried to send in a multimedia New York Times opinion piece titled “The Gay, Black Civil Rights Hero Opposed to Affirmative Action.”

Confronting the headline’s truth made clicking play difficult for me — until I realized the headline and Hughes’ claim could be debunked. When I failed to recall who’d published the video, Google came to the rescue. The search engine yielded links both to the video and a relevant October 1987 New York Times Letter to the Editor. Signed by Norman Hill and Leon Lynch, the letter refuted the claim Rustin was against affirmative action. Hill and Lynch served as A. Phillip Randolph Institute’s president and co-chairman.

“Rustin believed in affirmative action with objective and realistic criteria and an outreach component that would serve and sustain those who were denied equal opportunity because of past discrimination. He was, however, firmly opposed to quotas, believing that they were undemocratic and fostered the idea that blacks and other minorities were somehow incapable of competing in society, a notion he fought a lifetime to dispel.”

Hill and Lynch noted Rustin served as Recruitment and Training Program’s board chairman. The program’s mission was to “rectify underrepresentation of blacks and other minority groups in the construction and building trades.” Around 18,000 minorities became apprentices before the Reagan administration axed the program.

Correcting Hughes’ inaccuracy doesn’t spring from any desire to protect Rustin from critique. He’s not above critique. With that said, Hill and Lynch’s characterization of Rustin’s view on affirmative action resonates with me. Like the 14th Amendment and Voting Rights Act, affirmative action was another effort to “grandfather” people of color into the American Dream.

None of those actions reconstructed the American political and social systems. Speaking of Reconstruction, the Compromise of 1877 allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to get the electoral votes to be awarded the White House in exchange for ending progress that Reconstruction was bringing. Affirmative action, in its present form, doesn’t transform systems.

Acknowledging a 6-minute video doesn’t allow for much explanation, Hughes’ dependence on blanket statements irks me. Declaring Rustin opposed reparations without much context is disingenuous. Reparations originated in James Forman’s “Black Manifesto,” which called for churches and faith communities to give $500 million to the Black community. Forman debuted the manifesto in May 1969 at Riverside Church in New York City.

Looking deeper, it seems Rustin believed changing political systems and choices would be the better options. Therefore, as Hughes noted, Rustin advocated for a federal jobs guarantee, higher minimum wage, and universal health care.

Systems kept — and continue to keep — Black people from accessing employment, earning a living wage, and getting adequate health care. Some White liberals have fashioned themselves into patron saints thanks to some successful attempts to rectify these issues. So Rustin’s discussion of White liberal syndrome gets no push-back from me.

“Negroes have been used and exploited in many ways by White Americans, but it is only recently that they have been asked to satisfy the masochistic craving of disenchanted liberals for flagellation and rejection,” Rustin said in an August 1969 letter to Project Upward Bound Director Thomas Billings.

No White liberal can argue supporting civil rights didn’t get them Black votes. They can’t argue that safety net programs didn’t get them Black votes. White liberal politicians got and — continue to get — Black votes, thanks to their support of those policies, out of survival, not laziness.

Advocating for systemic change could mean those votes would no longer be guaranteed. Systemic change could also make calling Black youth “superpredators” a less effective way to stump for criminal justice legislation. The latter is a memory to some, but surprisingly fresh for young Black voters. In addition to Russian interference and sexism, lingering distrust played a factor in the 2016 election.

With that said, let me be clear, I’m no friend of conservatives. In his video op-ed, Hughes follows up the “White liberal syndrome” segment with research that argues conservatives are less condescending than liberals. I find that an interesting ploy. While liberals may talk down to me, conservatives who support the Trump administration are more problematic.

Ultimately and perhaps ironically, Hughes seems to paint Rustin as the Black Bernie Sanders by utilizing cherry-picked quotes. If so, his case is based on flawed assumptions.

This story was produced by Fellowship of Reconciliation


As an interfaith organization, FOR-USA's mission is to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.

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