Bayard Rustin was a leading figure in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most trusted advisers and associates. In addition, he was an incisive essayist, a relentless cold warrior who worked closely with the founders of neoconservatism, and a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people. During the 1970s, Rustin supported the liberal stalwarts of the Democratic party against the New Left radicals trying to overthrow them—a situation perhaps not so different, mutatis mutandis, from today’s. Arch Puddington, who worked with Rustin at the time, reminisces about this outstanding figure and his ideas:
Bayard . . . believed that the United States, as a beacon of freedom . . . had a special responsibility toward those whose lives had been turned upside down by war and persecution. . . . Bayard was also an active member of Freedom House, which he used as a base for fact-finding missions to South Africa and post-apartheid Zimbabwe as well as for campaigns to free jailed Soviet dissidents and support the new Solidarity trade union in Poland.
Bayard was a resolute supporter of Israel, a position that put him at odds with both his own pacifist principles and left-wing activists who regarded the Palestine Liberation Organization a legitimate liberation movement. Even before the Six-Day War, some outspoken Black Americans, most notably Malcolm X, gave vocal support to armed Palestinian groups. But Bayard laid the problems of the Middle East squarely at the feet of the monarchs and dictators who brutalized the Arab people—he referred to some of them as “proto-fascist”—and who resented Israel as the region’s lone democracy and, thus, a living rebuke to their own despotic regimes. After the UN General Assembly adopted the notorious “Zionism Is Racism” resolution in 1975, Bayard organized a committee of Black leaders to support the Jewish state.
Bayard did not use the term “racism” indiscriminately. When he applied terms of opprobrium like prejudice, bigotry, and, in the worst case, racism, he was a traditionalist: he tried to be precise.
Throughout his life, Bayard used democracy’s full array of possibilities for expanding human freedom. He believed in both the power of collective action and the indispensability of self-emancipation.