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Lifelong dissident

Published : Jun 26, 2013 00:00 IST


A century after Bayard Rustin’s birth, a collection of his letters relating to the anti-racist movement in the U.S. is published and it helps restore him to his rightful place in history.

" The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man ." -- George Bernard Shaw

ANY freedom-loving citizen must identify structures of authority, hierarchy and domination in every aspect of life and defy their illegitimacy. The state apparatus has always laboured to ensure the death of rebellion, although a few people like Bayard Rustin, a lifelong dissident who organised the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, have based their dissident politics on acts of resistance against any anti-liberal movement.

A follower of Gandhian politics, Rustin, a pacifist, a socialist and a gay civil rights leader, had such a deep commitment to a world embodying the ideals of liberty, equality and justice that he often showed a commitment to anti-racism that was far deeper than Martin Luther King, Jr’s.

Finally, a century after Rustin’s birth, a collection of his letters relating to the anti-racist movement in the United States has been published, and it has helped restore him to his role in history. He was representative of “free, self-respecting and autonomous citizens” and regarded non-violence between the state and the individual as inherent in a democratic system, values that he brought to bear upon his friend King. In his letter of September 28, 1956, to King, he emphasised the need to keep pacifism and spirituality at the forefront of their civil rights movement: “A segregated church, a church which bars Christians on grounds of race from the very table of our Lord, is in that respect not a church of Christ. In such a crisis as we experience in our land today, it daily crucifies our Lord anew.”

In another letter, written as a public exhibit designed to help children understand “the magnificent times in which we live”, he wrote: “[W]e must remember that we cannot hope to achieve democracy and equality in such a way that would destroy the very kind of society which we hope to build. If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end. If we desire a society in which men are brothers, then we must act towards one another with brotherhood. If we can build such a society, then we would have achieved the ultimate goal of human freedom.”

The civil rights movement under his guidance, therefore, challenged the state to respect the ideas of justice and liberty, thereby fashioning a counter discourse to a world of racist hate and brutality. His intellectual commitment to freedom and humanity urged him to seek forms of social organisation and a reasoned structural transformation of social institutions.

As seen in the letters compiled in this book, the private and the public coalesce in Rustin, leaving the stamp of his convictions on his acts of intervention. Although it is difficult to erase or destroy the ideas that govern a culture, individuals like King and his mentor Rustin did at least rip apart or disturb them by showing how the rights of the segregated were relegated to the margins. Society’s methodical and systemic ideals stand challenged wherever individual freedom is put under any restraint. The letters are clearly symbolic of an ideology of participation in justifiable political protest against dominance out of principle and out of loyalty to a cause and out of a conviction that the world can be made better and stronger through a demand for civil rights. Protest has to be allowed in society as we live in a world that is constantly changing, and it is by protest that laws are changed for the betterment of future generations. A bad law cannot be allowed to exist; people should have the right to have it abolished or changed. And if they do dissent, then they must be prepared to accept the consequences of their action.

For Rustin, the whole question of dissidence was that one must have freedom, and he intended to remain a dissident until he died. Committed politicians like him are genuinely interested in change, the motivating force behind any reform in history. Many have lost their jobs. Censorship and surveillance, denial of due processes of law, excessive force, these are the high-handed tactics used by the state machinery to counter dissent such as holding protests, rallies and vigils or putting up posters displaying protest messages. And Rustin wrote and spoke on these issues with a commitment that finally showed results in the demonstrations he organised. To New York City Mayor Edward Koch, after publicly testifying in support of gay rights legislation, he wrote on April 29, 1986: “In my statement I cited the major lesson I had learned in fighting for human rights for 50 years for people all over the world. That lesson is simple: no group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment.”

The book provides insights into these important aspects of protest. The letters are an example of a political activist’s tireless efforts to promote American civil rights and throw light on the struggles one has to undergo against all opposition, especially when there are ideological differences: Rustin’s strongly held views on non-violence often clashed with other Trotskyite activists who believed that change was possible only through violence. Remarkably moving in their spirit and intention, the letters symbolise dedication to a political and social purpose intended for racial justice and equality.

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he was influenced early on by the Bible. The story of the Jews and their departure from the land of the Pharaohs and their search for the Promised Land became a metaphor of spiritual liberation for him, a compelling force that helped him channel all his thoughts and energies towards freedom and justice for his fellow beings. That he was arrested 23 times and served 28 months in a federal penitentiary only goes to show what an uphill battle he had to wage.

His spiritual resilience in the face of such odds is obvious in a letter written from prison: “My best friends have been beaten and assassinated. Yet, to remain human and to fulfil my commitment to a just society, I must continue to fight for the liberation of all men.”

Openly gay, he was often silenced by his conservative fellow activists, but no one could stop him from speaking out for himself in these historic letters. It was not only racist politics that interested him. He stood up against war and compulsory drafting and wrote against it passionately: “Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by non-violent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the state directs that I shall do its will; which of these dictates can I follow —that of God or that of the state? Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the state. But when the will of God and the will of the state conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. If I cannot continue in my present vocation, I must resist.”

And writing on unemployment among blacks, his views were hard-hitting. For example, when he wrote to the press about his meeting with President Gerald Ford in 1976: “The most urgently needed policy is a commitment to full employment. When black unemployment by official statistics remains above seven per cent… we have major national crises…. We need to rededicate ourselves to the original principles of the nation. We must have policies which make it possible for all citizens to pursue happiness.”

As Vaclav Havel writes, “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.” No wonder firebrands like Edward Said, Emma Goldman, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Rustin stand for freedom and democracy over dictatorship, of free enterprise over state socialism, of tolerance over bigotry. For Rustin, letter writing was a channel for communication, a means to connect and share with his readers his thoughts and strategies for change and social and economic justice.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 12, 2013.)



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