Record of a Pacifist's Progress


Record of a Pacifist's Progress Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin Quadrangle 355 pp $10 00 Reviewed by Thomas R. Brooks Author, "Toil and Trouble A History of A met wan...

...Record of a Pacifist's Progress Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin Quadrangle 355 pp $10 00 Reviewed by Thomas R. Brooks Author, "Toil and Trouble A History of A met wan Labor" Recently I had occasion to quote Bayard Rustin in an article and the editor penciled in the descriptive phrase, "veteran civil rights strategist " Though he is undeniably a veteran of many a civil rights battle, this collection of his writings amply demonstrates that he is considerably more than a mere strategist In developing tactics aimed at achieving moral and political goals, Rustin has managed an uncommon marriage of pragmatism and idealism He is one of those rare men who not only understands that means shape ends, but undertakes courses of action that move us toward a more just society Down the Line opens with a simple account of an incident that took place in the summer of 1942 Refusing to go to the back of the Louisville-Nashville bus, Rustin informed an angry, frustrated driver, "If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice " Beaten and arrested, he responded to Jim Crow with a lesson in nonviolence It ended, he recalls, with the assistant district attorney of Nashville saying, "very kindly, You may go, Mistei Rustin ' " In subsequent chapters, he describes the theory of nonviolence, indicates the conditions for its success and evokes what the Quakers call "witness " Robert Perm Warren once noted that Rustin's appearance is "a strange mixtuie of strength and sensitivity " Both qualities are present in his prose, which is lean, sinewy, spare as his lanky frame, yet grows in complexity as his ideas and tactics become increasingly concerned with the difficulties of mass action, the uses of the ballot and the necessity for coalition politics His book reflects a journey from individual affirmation to collective effort, infused all the way with moral purpose "I reject the idea of working toi the Negro as being impractical and immoral," Rustin said in 1965, "if one does that alone" But much earlier he and his pacifist colleagues had begun teaching brotherhood and nonviolence by their actions as well as their words, one example being the 1947 "Journey of Reconciliation" organized by core and the Fellowship of Reconciliation to test the then new Supreme Court decision knocking down segregated interstate travel This approach reached its climax in the 1963 March on Washington Later in the '60s, when the focus shifted "from protest to politics," as Rustm puts it in the pivotal essay of the book and of his career, he insisted that the country could settle for no less "than the radical refashioning of our political economy ' In that cause, he noted in 1967, "The Negroes are the only group in our population that is presently in significant motion " Yet unlike some who plunged into the melee, piomoting confrontation for its own sake, Rustin cared about the character of that motion, deplored and fought those aspects of it that were blind and mindless, and sought to give it direction by urging flexible strategies appropriate to particular situations Thus Rustin vigorously opposed the trend toward black separatism A handful of blacks may integrate a lunch counter or even force the hiring of black workers at construction sites if theie we jobs, he argued, but they cannot independently create jobs, tear down our slums or rebuild our cities, that requires political power "Neither the civil rights movement," Rustin writes, "nor the country's 20 million black people can win political power alone We need allies The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States I speak of the coalition which staged the March on Washington, passed the Civil Rights Act, and laid the basis for the Johnson landslide —Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups " First advanced in 1964—before Watts, Newark, Detroit and all the other riots and confrontations of the years since—this argument holds with even greater force today as we seek a way out of the Nixoman impasse Continuing Down the Line, the pressures build, inexorably, toward Rustm's conclusion "The prominent racial and ethnic loyalties that divide American society have, together with our democratic creed, obscured a fundamental reality?that we are a class society and, though we do not often talk about such things, that we are engaged in a class struggle This reality may not provide some people with their wished-for quotient of drama and it may now have become an institutionalized struggle between the trade union movement and the owners and managers of corporate wealth Yet it is a struggle nonetheless, and its outcome will determine equality in this country As long as blacks are poor, our own struggle will be a part of this broad class reality To the degiee it is not, black liberation will remain a dream in the souls of an oppressed people " C Vann Woodward in his introduction to this collection makes the point that "the fugitive pieces as well as the studied essays and policy papers maintain a tone of reason and humane concern that is rare in times of rebellion" Precisely because of this, and because I am in broad agreement with Rustin, I regret that his book lacks a summation, a reflective, analytical explanation of the direction his life—the most political of journeys—has taken His early compulsion to witness sits uneasily with his later assumption of the imperatives of the class struggle Rustin clearly has resolved any conflict in his own mind It would be valuable to have him tell us how he has done so in his own words...

Vol. 54 • November 1971 • No. 23

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