Bayard Rustin Was a Man of Courage and Principle, Not a Hero of Intersectionality

September 14, 2023 | James Kirchick
About the author: James Kirchick is the assistant editor of The New Republic and a Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.

A close confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer of the march on Washington where King gave his “I have a dream” speech. Because he was a black leftist as well as an open homosexual, he is today often hailed from the perspective of “intersectionality”—a school of thought fixated on hierarchies of victimhood, and one that inevitably turns its adherents against the Jews. Such a tendentious use of Rustin’s legacy does little justice to his own thinking, writes James Kirchick. Instead, Kirchick focuses on Rustin’s “intellectual fearlessness” and “resistance to party dogma,” which led him to become fiercely anti-Communist while remaining a socialist, break with his youthful pacificism, perceptively criticize black radicals, and maintain a staunch commitment to Zionism:

Mr. Rustin repeatedly said that if he had been aware of the Holocaust during World War II, he most likely would not have become a conscientious objector. . . . Yet another source of antagonism between Mr. Rustin and the left was his outspoken opposition to anti-Semitism within the Black community and fervent support for the state of Israel. “So far as Negroes are concerned,” he wrote in 1967, responding to an eruption of anti-Semitic statements by radical Black activists, “one of the more unprofitable strategies we could ever adopt is now to join in history’s oldest and most shameful witch hunt, anti-Semitism.” The following year, in an address to the Anti-Defamation League, Mr. Rustin condemned “young Negroes spouting material directly from Mein Kampf.”

In 1975, as the United Nations General Assembly was preparing its infamous resolution condemning Zionism as a “form of racism,” Mr. Rustin assembled a group of African American luminaries including A. Philip Randolph, Arthur Ashe, and Ralph Ellison into the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC). “Since Israel is a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction, those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence,” he declared.

A descendant of slaves who was himself a victim of brutally violent racism, Mr. Rustin never let his country’s many sins overshadow his belief in its capacity for positive change. His patriotism was unfashionable among progressives while he was alive and is even more exceptional today. “I have seen much suffering in this country,” he said. “Yet despite all this, I can confidently assert that I would prefer to be a black in America than a Jew in Moscow, a Chinese in Peking, or a black in Uganda, yesterday or today.”

Asked to contribute to an anthology of Black gay men the year before his death, Mr. Rustin respectfully declined. “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black,” he wrote. “Rather it is rooted, fundamentally, in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”

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