In his younger years Bayard Rustin was a fearless fighter for peace and social justice. That is what should be memorialised. (“Remember Bayard Rustin”, Eric Lee, Solidarity 239).
The SP, later the SDUSA, of which Rustin became a prominent personality opened another, sadder chapter. The SP melded their concept of coalitionism — of driving the racist Dixiecrat wing from the Democratic party — into an abject apologia for accommodationism.
Rustin had played a major and salutary role in organizing the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, only to betray the movement a year later by working against the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The latter had the utter gall to believe their state delegation to the national Democratic Party convention in 1964 should be integrated. Rustin, in his newly evolved role as point man for the liberal establishment, was instrumental in trying to foist on the MFDP a miserable “compromise” in which it would be allowed observer status but no voting rights.
The younger Rustin, not to mention the once revolutionary Shachtman, would have understood that the bulk (with many honorable and notable exceptions) of American unions at that time resembled in their internal operations the very authoritarian societies, structures and habits that when writ large the cold-war Shachtmans and Rustins opposed.
Rustin’s job was to magnify the insignificant token concessions of the labor tops and to market them to the civil rights movement as giant strides forward, while counselling blacks to have patience and above all not to raise demands that might fracture their oh-so precious coalition.
The AFL-CIO cheered the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s brinkmanship in the Cuban missile crisis, the invasion of the Dominican Republic and Johnson’s intensification and escalation of the war in Vietnam. Not until the very end of the Vietnam was labour represented in any meaningful way in any anti-war demonstration.
Rustin and a good portion of the “Democratic Left”, as the SP and its labour/liberal allies called themselves, opposed the demands for immediate withdrawal, and were also opposed to the cessation of American bombings of North Vietnam, until “both sides — not just the US” take peace initiatives.
It was never a question of steering the anti-war movement away from Stalinism; only of wrecking it where possible, diluting it when necessary, lest it threaten the viability of the “coalition” and the social privileges that the coalition preserved.
As the New York Times reported in June 15, 1967, Rustin asserted “that the civil rights movement could gain nothing without President Johnson’s support, and that the President’s support might be diluted if civil rights leaders took strong stands against the Administration’s policy in Vietnam.”
One could try to put a more elaborate flourish to Rustin’s or Shachtman’s positions on the war, but in the end they simply offered themselves as tools to the reactionaries within the labor movement until they actually integrated themselves into the world view of that unique form of bureaucratic conservatism.
There is very little that can be salvaged from that legacy.