Yesterday, America celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Shalom Goldman takes the occasion to remember another outstanding figure of the civil-rights movement: Bayard Rustin, who was one of King’s foremost advisers and influences. Like King, Rustin was a friend of the Jewish people and the Jewish state; he also was a frequent contributor to Commentary, and would later help found—along with, inter alia, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick—the anti-Soviet Committee for the Present Danger. Goldman finds the roots of Rustin’s sympathy for the Jews in his devout Quaker upbringing:
Bible lessons, led by his grandmother, were Bayard’s earliest educational experience. As a child Rustin was taught to respect all religions and to sympathize with the oppressed. “My grandmother,” Rustin recalled in his later years, “was thoroughly convinced that when it came to matters of the liberation of black people, we had much more to learn from the Jewish experience than we had to learn out of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Rustin’s public advocacy for Israel was a constant in his career, but it emerged more forcefully in response to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Some of that movement’s leaders embraced the Palestinian cause and declared Israel a pariah state. Rustin, one of the pioneers of the struggle for civil rights, condemned this move and hostility to Jews and Israel, especially as manifested in the Nation of Islam and in the Black Panthers.
Rustin traveled to Israel twice, in 1969 and in 1982. That first visit was to a conference at Hebrew University on technology and human development. He toured the country and met Prime Minister Golda Meir. As Rustin’s biographer Jervis Anderson noted, “Of the many Israeli leaders Rustin met, Golda Meir captivated him most. She likewise was enchanted by him. . . . If he wasn’t already a Zionist before their first meeting, then he surely must have become one during the long and animated political discussions they held in her office.”