Monday, August 12, 2013

Bayard Rustin: Civil Rights Leader. Union Organizer. Zionist

Labor leader and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin has been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Along with Rustin, 15 others will be honored at a White House ceremony later this year.

Bayard Rustin will be remembered as an American labor leader, an advocate for universal civil rights for all, regardless or color or sexual orientation, and as a Zionist. He worked to protect the rights of marginalized communities both at home and abroad, fighting against apartheid in South Africa, as well as for the freedom on Soviet Jews. Rustin was a strong friend of the Jewish Labor Committee and a defender of the state of Israel. A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the first African-American labor union- the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Rustin joined forces to create the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC).

As a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation he participated in the group's interracial Journey of Reconciliation, engaging in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience throughout the South. These demonstrations served as a precursor to the Freedom Rides of the1960s. As a result of his outspoken activism and acts of civil disobedience, Rustin served time on a prison chain gang.

Rustin was also major figure in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, serving as an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr on the philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience. Over a quarter million people participated on the march, which culminated in Dr. King’s unforgettable “I have a dream” speech. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act ten months later.

In 1965, Rustin and Randolph founded the APRI, which helped coordinate the AFL-CIO's work on civil rights and economic justice, eventually serving as director . He was also a regular columnist for the AFL-CIO News.

As an openly gay African American, Rustin was a trail blazer and an inspiration to many who followed. In 1986 he declared: "The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated."

Bayard Rustin was also an outspoken friend of Israel.

From Eric Lee,  founding editor of Labourstart an on-line news service for the trade union movement, writing about Rustin:

Like his mentor Randolph, he believed strongly that the labor movement was the key to social change and was willing to work with conservative union leaders to achieve his goals.

He was a consistent advocate of human rights and stood up for the Vietnamese “boat people” in the 1970s when many on the left were busy cheering on the victorious Vietnamese Communists.

And he was the strongest supporter Israel ever had outside the Jewish community.

Rustin supported Israel because he believed in its values of democracy. But he wasn’t an uncritical advocate. He campaigned for the rights of the “Black Hebrews” who had settled in the southern Israeli town of Dimona. He was a strong supporter of the Histadrut and the Israel Labor Party.
Appalled by the Nov 10, 1975  United Nations GA Assembly resolution 3379 which declared that that Zionism was a form of racism, African American community leaders joined with their Jewish colleagues in a rally against racism and antisemitism in Manhattan.

From Gil Troy's book, Moynihan's Moment 
Three important African-American leaders spoke: Percy Sutton, a famous lawyer and politician; Clarence Mitchell, a veteran NAACP official, and the activist Bayard Rustin. Many in the black civil rights community resented the Arabs hijacking their language and sloppily misapplying it to the Middle East.

  “Smearing the ‘racist’ label on Zionism is an insult to intelligence,” wrote Vernon Jordan, the then-40-year-old president of the National Urban League. “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words like ‘forced busing,’ ‘law and order,’ and others, can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for antisemitism.” Jordan, a Southern-born lawyer, based his case against the General Assembly for “saying that national self-determination is for everyone except Jews.” And he detailed Arab discrimination against Christian Copts, Kurds, Sudanese blacks and Jews – especially dark-skinned Sephardi Jews.

One African-American speaker in particular, Bayard Rustin, stole the show...

 Rustin considered the resolution “an insult to the generations of blacks who have struggled against real racism.” In his newspaper column, he described the “incalculable damage” done to the fight against racism when the word becomes a “political weapon” rather than a moral standard. Rooting anti-Zionism in the ugly intersection between traditional antisemitism and the Arab desire to eradicate Israel, Rustin quoted Rev. King, a strong supporter of Israel, who said: “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking antisemitism.”

 Rustin and others also feared distraction from the anti-apartheid fight. Before the vote, 28 African-American intellectuals appealed to the General Assembly to bury this “extraneous issue.” The scholars warned that a taint of antisemitism around the broader mission “will heavily compromise African hopes of expunging apartheid from the world....”

 Tall and handsome, with his Afro sticking up and looming over his high forehead, Rustin ended his speech by bursting into song, singing Go Down Moses. As thousands of New Yorkers, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, joined in shouting “Let my people go,” the black and Jewish experiences reached a harmonic convergence.

Later that month,  Rustin’s group Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC) took out an ad in the New York Times, signed by nearly 200 African American leaders, including Hank Aaron, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Shirley Chisolm, Coretta Scott King, Roy Wilkins and Rosa Parks declaring:
“Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self determination...From our 400 year experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination we know that Zionism is not racism.”
The ad also stated:

We support democratic Israel’s right to exist.
The democratic values that have sustained our struggle in America are also the source of our admiration for Israel and her impressive social achievements. No nation is without imperfections. But Israel’s are far outweighed by the freedom of her democratic society. Only in Israel, among the nations of the Middle East, are political freedoms and civil liberties secure. All religions are free and secure in their observance. Education is free and universal. Social welfare is highly advanced. Her communal farms (Kibbutzim) are models of social idealism, creative innovation, cooperative spirit. Israel’s labor movement, the Histadrut, has earned the deep respect of freed trade unionists throughout the world.
Black Americans to Support Israel Committee ad in New York Times

Read the full text of the ad here:

Many Americans will be commemorating the March on Washingtons’ 50th anniversary later this month. Lets use this an opportunity to remember the pioneering work of Bayard Rustin and his vision of a world without hate. We have come quite far in 50 years, but there is still a long way to go.

No comments: