Bayard Rustin: The Panthers Couldn’t Save Us Then Either
Bayard Rustin’s commentary between 1965 and 1975 on race, class, and politics in the U.S. was sharply insightful and can be read profitably for cultivating a nuanced understanding of the crucial period between the victories won by the civil rights movement and institutional consolidation of the ethnic interest-group regime generally known as “black politics.”1 To the extent that naïve, inadequate, simplistic, or simply wrong narratives concerning that political moment figure significantly into current formulations of black political life, engaging with Rustin’s critiques can be a helpful corrective to mistaken or shallow assessments regarding the present as well as the past.
Rustin saw politics through a concrete, strategic lens, which provided a perspective that has become increasingly remote from both academic and activist experience. Indeed, as demonstrated in the essays selected here, he explicitly rejected the moralistic discourse that he saw undergirding much of Black Power and New Left politics, as well as the tendency to reduce the sources of inequality to psychologistic factors like prejudice, discrimination, or a generic racism. He was committed to a vision of a just society that hinged on pursuit of broad economic equality, and he was convinced, as most Popular Front-era black radicals were, that advancing toward economic equality in general was essential for black Americans both because black Americans were preponderantly in the working class and because continued improvement for blacks required being part of a broad political coalition centered on improving the lives and economic security of all working people.2 He also understood that realizing such an egalitarian agenda under American capitalism would require the efforts of a different sort of movement, a popularly based institutional politics, and that generating that movement would require a strategic and programmatic shift from the watershed moment of 1965.
In one of his most controversial essays, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary (February 1965), Rustin argued that the legislative victories of 1964 and, in anticipation, 1965 effectively fulfilled the goals of the civil rights movement and that the movement, which he suggested probably warranted a new name, needed to reorient toward pursuit of an agenda centered on broad economic redistribution. He reiterates that argument in his 1967 address, “Firebombs or a Freedom Budget,” reproduced here, in which he stumps for the “Freedom Budget” for All Americans that the A. Philip Randolph Institute had released the year before.3 In the 1967 address he asserts:
I think before I talk about the Freedom Budget it is necessary for us to make some analysis of where we are now, because everybody is writing great and long articles about prejudice and discrimination in the United States as if we were back in 1955 or ’56 or ’57 or ’50 or ’60 or ’62 or three or four. The fact is my friends—we are in a totally different period in the problem of civil rights than we have ever been in our history. And practically none of the experience of the past is particularly significant. …
Now I want you to know, in the present period we are dealing with practically no fundamental question in the minds of Negroes which are “Negro problems”—for what Negroes are interested in is decent housing, decent jobs, decent education and the right of participation in decision-making.
That perspective, which is attuned to concerns most black people experience as pressing in their daily lives and is sensitive to the significance of changing political environment, stands in sharp contrast to the race-reductionist tendency emerging then among militants within and on the fringes of the civil rights movement and certainly to Afropessimist and other contemporary race-reductionist twaddle now to the effect that black Americans—and, for Afropessimists, blacks all over the world and across time, always and forever—have faced most consequentially and been undone perpetually by an immutable, ethereal racism.4 Unlike Rustin’s matter-of-fact, real-time observation regarding the impact of the legislative victories, Black Power ideologues then and other race-reductionists since have rejected political analysis anchored by historical specificity in favor of an abstract idealism in which there is no meaningful or authentic political differentiation among black Americans, and race/racism exhausts the totality of black political life. Within that mindset, institutional politics—laws, Constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, electoral successes, consolidation of power within national and local party apparatus, even a war to end slavery—is meaningless, only superficial window-dressing on the deeper Truth of eternal, indivisible black racial suffering. That is how, for example, Saidiya Hartman can dismiss Emancipation as a “nonevent.”5 And, as I and others have argued elsewhere, interpretive frames that homogenize black Americans’ political life into a singular, transhistorical struggle for an abstract racial justice—e.g., as a linear “black liberation struggle” or “black freedom movement”—drain actual politics from black political history and, most tellingly, obscure realities of conflict and interest differentiation among black people.6
In fairness to Black Powerites, that race-reductionist viewpoint could seem more plausible on the cusp of the new political era than it should more than a half-century into its consolidation as normal life. The fact that race-first politics persists, and is arguably hegemonic, requires active denial of the realities of decades of history between then and now. After all, how do we account for all the black elected officials, upper-level public administrators, power brokers with and without portfolio, corporate executives, elite professors at elite universities, upper-class professionals, and truly rich (as opposed to that other kind of rich) black people and wannabes while contending that all black Americans suffer equally from racial oppression? Doing so requires the rhetorical equivalent of fastening hands over ears and bleating “Racial disparity! Racial disparity!” over and over as loudly as possible. William A. Darity, one of the most tireless proponents of reparations and racial wealth gap ideology, prefers focusing on the differences in mean “racial” wealth rather than differences in median “racial” wealth in part because the mean—the sum of all wealth held by people in each racial category divided by the number of wealth-holders in that category—yields a larger dollar figure as the measure of disparity. (Drawing from the Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, Darity estimates the mean “racial” gap, between the supposedly average white and black household, as roughly $840,000; the median “racial” difference, the difference between the households at the mid-point of each racial distribution, was $164,100.) However, focus on the mean “racial” difference also obscures the possibly complicating fact that more than seventy percent of each “group’s” wealth is held by its richest ten percent.7
In another controversial essay published in Commentary a year after his 1965 argument, Rustin declared, drawing the contrast with his and Randolph’s Freedom Budget proposal, that “advocates of ‘black power’ have no such programs in mind; what they are in fact arguing for (perhaps unconsciously) is the creation of a new black establishment.”8 He understood that race-reductionism is fundamentally a class program. He prefaced his assessment by noting that
Unless civil rights leaders … can organize grass-roots clubs whose members will have a genuine political voice, the Dixiecrats might well be succeeded by black moderates and black Southern-style machine politicians, who would do little to push for needed legislation in Congress and little to improve local conditions in the South. While I myself would prefer Negro machines to a situation in which Negroes have no power at all, it seems to me that there is a better option today—a liberal-labor-civil rights coalition which would work to make the Democratic party truly responsive to the aspirations of the poor, and which would develop support for programs (specifically those outlined in A. Philip Randolph’s $100 billion Freedom Budget) aimed at the reconstruction of American society in the interests of greater social justice.9
Unfortunately, the “civil rights leaders,” or people who would claim that status, either became the “black Southern-style machine politicians” themselves or spurned popular mobilization in favor of elite-negotiation and racial brokerage, and the alchemy—racecraft—of a racial trickledown through which jobs, contracts, and accolades for well-off black people become collective racial benefits. In a similar vein, Rustin’s rejection of “black capitalism” as a strategy for improvement of black Americans’ economic circumstances, also included here, is, if anything, more pertinent today as neoliberal race-reductionist discourse has fetishized “entrepreneurialism”—often only a pathetic euphemism glamorizing what is in effect irregular, contingent, and degraded employment (the “independent contractor” with no protections or benefits) or abject huckstering—as the preferred route to black economic security, also now fetishized as “success” alongside the mystification “black wealth.”
Rustin probably miscalculated the possibilities for transforming the Democratic party, though in 1963 and 1964 openings seemed to exist for pursuit of a full-employment economic policy that had closed by 1966 and 1967. In any case, it was not unreasonable in the moment, even though many radicals opposed the idea, to try to resurrect or refocus the left-inflected New Deal/Fair Deal coalition. Cedric Johnson is likely correct that Rustin’s rejection of the “repertoire of movement strategies” associated with protest politics that “might have enabled African Americans and other more progressive elements in American society to press for more substantial policy reforms” was a strategic misstep and probably also that it reflected Rustin’s “rightward drift,” or at least his moves toward being an inside operative, which seemed partly to shape his trajectory beginning with the fight at the 1964 Democratic convention (see below) and for reasons Johnson also examines (PCSU 168–69). However, the approach Rustin and Randolph had in mind for agitating for the Freedom Budget hinged largely on mobilization of popular support generated through public education that institutional endorsers would conduct among their members and constituents. Although that was not a strategy based on dramatic protest campaigns, and it definitely presumed a reformed Democratic party as the vehicle for realizing the Budget as public policy, it was grounded on an understanding that popular agitation would be necessary to reform the party in the desired direction. And it is important to note that Randolph, Rustin, and APRI did not have the capacity to launch a national campaign on their own and were dependent on endorsing organizations to carry it forward. (This is a frustrating limitation all too familiar to those who were involved in trying to organize the Labor Party in the 1990s and early 2000s.) They and their allies sent copies of the document to “elected officials, religious leaders, and civil rights figures all over the country.” In addition to APRI’s edition, the League for Industrial Democracy, through Michael Harrington’s and fellow Socialist Tom Kahn’s efforts, published and propagated its own edition, as did Americans for Democratic Action. The AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department published and distributed two editions—one for union leaders that by 1968 totaled 85,000 copies and a shorter twenty-page version that eventually totaled 100,000. Union magazines and other publications touted and excerpted the document, and Rustin and allies discussed a public education campaign, including speaking tours and other forms of outreach.10 The reasons the campaign failed to gain traction were complex and cannot be reduced to failure to break with centrist or mainstream Democrats.
Rustin’s 1970 “Address to YPSL” [the Young People’s Socialist League]—also included here—suggests another factor that may have contributed to his souring on the “repertoire of movement strategies.” He makes clear in this address that, just as he saw through the contradictions of Black Power politics, he was acutely aware of the limits of, and had become antagonistic toward, the New Left and black radical tendencies that vied for legitimacy as articulating the voice of an insurgent movement politics in the late 1960s. (The extent to which the peremptory character of Rustin’s critique drove or was driven by his evolving political trajectory is an interesting question but beside the point here. I will say that, like Johnson, I have long seen Rustin as something of a tragic figure.)
The “Address to YPSL” shows how much Rustin’s assessment of the lay of the political land was predicated on a no-nonsense understanding of the radicalism of the moment, and it throws into relief how shallow, dilettantish views of “60s” radicalism contribute to naïve or wrongheaded understandings that persist to the present regarding radical activism and what political movements are and how they are generated and sustained. Both scholarly and popular representations of radical or insurgent politics, fitting for an environment saturated by neoliberal individualism, project larger-than-life heroes who somehow generate “change” by force of their mere presence and moral superiority, even though in the race-reductionist framework concrete changes don’t amount to much, as the Leaders invariably are martyred or sold out by racism.11 Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, exemplifies this tendency. Even though she said that she did not intend for it to be an expression of simple King idolatry, her narrative of the Selma campaign and struggle for the Voting Rights Act nevertheless depicts its success as resulting from emanation of his personal moral force: King shows up and exudes a nearly beatific aura; people get beaten and brutalized, which demonstrates their moral superiority in victimization; the VRA passes. The film papers over tensions between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and activists in the local Selma movement, partly resultant from King’s close, separate relationship with the Lyndon Johnson administration. DuVernay intentionally misrepresents that relationship because, in her view, honest examination of it would detract from the story of extraordinary and singular black heroism she was committed to tell.
Because glamorization of heroes is not linked to actual political accomplishment or significance in their own time, superficial aesthetic appeal and politics of reputation in the present easily distort actual political history. The Combahee River Collective, never much more than a book club that issued statements in the late 1970s, has now been lauded repeatedly as the font of an important post-1960s black radical sensibility and canonized as a model for us today. Rehearsing the fantasy of the small, short-lived group’s importance in 1970s political history is consistent with a retrievalist tendency in left-inflected political historiography that takes as its project “recovery” and celebration of groups and individuals from marginalized populations whose “contributions” supposedly had theretofore gone under-recognized. Now that the CRC has become a touchstone of identitarian righteousness, genuflecting before it is pro forma, reminiscent of a bygone era when Catholic school students were encouraged to head their school papers with “JMJ” [Jesus, Mary, Joseph] to demonstrate piety. Liberals’ predilection to view civil rights and other social movements through an idealist, ahistorical, moralizing, even messianic lens that would please Leo Strauss has ensured that performing more elaborate reverence for the CRC fantasy, for example, can grease the skids for a certain kind of academic careerism.12 Similarly, Peniel Joseph’s chronicle of the Black Power movement sidesteps all the substantial political developments of the late 1960s and the subsequent decade—most of all the emergence and institutionalization of the new black political class centered on office-holding and strong incorporation into mainstream institutions.13 His account of Black Power centers instead on what my son described after several encounters on Chicago’s South Side in the mid-1990s as the “costume party” elements of post-Black Power black nationalism. The book, moreover, leaps—in the same way that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film jumps from Malcolm’s assassination to the 1990s, as though nothing of consequence happened in between—from discussion of the Black Panther Party’s performative “revolutionary” politics in the early 1970s to 1980s hip-hop culture as the true legatee of Black Power radicalism.14 That move is consistent with what I have argued is race reductionists’ commitment to a manifestly false contention that black Americans’ circumstances have not altered significantly since 1965, 1865, or 1619. It also reflects an understanding, which has become dominant in the United States during the last generation, of radical or insurgent politics as expressive activity enacted in dramatic public performance. “Movements” in this context are declared, not organized, and those declarations are validated by media recognition, not evidence of popular rootedness and support or political capacity.
A mythology of the Black Panther Party has contributed greatly to that dilettantism, propelled by and propelling a hyperbolic literature that asserts the BPP’s under-appreciated significance. One defense of that assertion extracts the BPP from its stream of history and contends that it was important because of the beliefs the group embraced and the revolutionary program it adopted, without regard to its substantive political impact. This defense tracks along with a tendency in academic literature to evaluate such groups’ significance based largely on their own propaganda statements. A related defense converges with a different tendency in political-historical interpretation, the search for roads tragically not taken that might have transformed American politics but for some perfidy or quirk of circumstances. (This interpretive standpoint overlaps as well the retrievalist de facto research program in African American Studies and related fields I mention above.) From this perspective, the Panthers might have had more serious and lasting impact were it not for the intense police repression the group faced. So their significance was potential, and in an interpretive frame of reference that conflates the actual and the desirable, potential can seem more meaningful than actuality.15 Yet another defense of claims to the Panthers’ significance relies on fudging or misrepresenting historical fact to exaggerate their legacy. One of the most commonly retailed of such claims is that the BPP either created the free breakfast program for school children, which the federal government co-opted, or that the Panthers by example forced or shamed the federal government into extending the program to poor, nonwhite communities. I suspect that many readers will be familiar with those claims, which I have read or heard posited as commonsense truth far more times than I can count. The federal free school breakfast program, however, was established by the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, a component of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the year the BPP was created. In fact, President Johnson signed the Act into law on October 11; the BPP was only founded four days later, on October 15. And the Panthers did not offer their first breakfast until January 1969.
Consideration, even appreciation, of the place of the BPP and the broader field of 1960s radicalism in American political history should not require exaggeration, distortion, and mythology. All that activity was the product of and constituted nodes within a complex and fluid moment in American politics that remains poorly understood, not least due to an endless, self-reinforcing barrage of mass-mediated, spectaclist representations and the nostalgic yearnings of aging radicals who at this point in their lives have, or perhaps always had, difficulty distinguishing existential gratification and political analysis.16 Especially a half-century after the fact, there are no vital legacies to be preserved or organizational histories to be protected. If any political imperative should inform reflection on that past, it should be to take advantage of the perspective and insight enabled by temporal distance and observation of the continued maturation and evolution of political forces to deepen comprehension of the sources of our current political moment and how we got here from there.
With all that said, there is a broad commonsense understanding among leftists, even internationally, that the Black Panther Party was a major revolutionary organization that would have been a potent force in American politics but for massive state repression. Therefore, I assume that Rustin’s assessment of the BPP, and of the New Left generally, will strike a dissonant note with some readers and may seem heretical. In his “Address to YPSL,” Rustin targeted an emergent tendency within the left to “substitute psychology for politics,” which he judged to be “an extremely dangerous attitude which the movement must fight.” He also inveighed against the tendencies to substitute morality for programs and slogans for politics, both of which he saw as growing dangers especially among young radicals, and he believed that young Socialists would be best equipped to combat those tendencies. In keeping with his criticisms of Black Power, he noted:
Simply telling white people what makes you feel good in a moral stance, that they’re blue-eyed devils or that they are a racist, is dangerous. [I think perhaps the most dangerous thing that ever happened now, as I look back upon it, is the Kerner Report.] It’s a cop-out for blacks who don’t want to develop programs, so they call white people racists. And it’s a cop-out for whites who are titillated and delighted to be called racists. And thus Stokely can come back to the United States and receive $2,500 a lecture for telling white people how they stink.
His judgment of the New Left’s more flamboyant elements was blunt:
Forget the Weathermen, forget SDS, and forget the types of college kids fundamentally who are white, elitist and who are a happy, charming group of people, who are rich and who probably are not going to contribute very much either to thinking or political action. The average family which has children in SDS makes $23,000 a year, a very sobering thought when you consider that the average American family makes $8,000 a year. That is the injustice which SDS should be protesting. Now, my friends we must give attention therefore to those areas where something can grow, as against where something appears to be dramatic because the press needs to sell its papers.
And his view of the Black Panthers, especially in contrast to a mass membership organization like the NAACP, was particularly brusque: “The Panthers do not have one thousand members. Most of the kids you see on the street are not Panthers. They are there to sell a paper, for every one they sell they get a dime. There are about one thousand Panther members in the country, half of whom are FBI men watching the five hundred legitimate members.” One thing that especially struck me about Rustin’s characterization of the BPP was that I said almost exactly the same thing about the Panthers at the same time.
As was common among my cohort of radicals, I was no fan of Rustin during those years. However, anyone who paid attention and had to deal with them on organizing terrain could have seen the problems with the BPP. For example, in 1969, when I was visiting the Ft. Dix Coffeehouse project in New Jersey a few weeks after the coffeehouse had been firebombed, a Panther came over from Jersey City and, while performing the taciturn, condescending “serious black revolutionary” persona that turned the white radicals into simpering mush, he pressed me to help him locate a couple of BPP “renegades” in North Carolina. I knew that they didn’t need me to help them locate those guys and that his queries were most likely a ploy to draw me into some incriminating operation. That was a few months after the murder of Alex Rackley in New Haven (years later I got to know Kimbro because his wife, Beverly, was the business manager in the Yale political science department; David Hilliard spent about a year in New Haven in the 1980s, and I also got to know him fairly well), and I’d already gotten the sense that, at least on the East Coast, the BPP was, as Rustin indicates, half cops or thugs or both. In 1970, after I was established working on our project in Fayetteville, NC, I had to put a Panther out of a meeting at my house at shotgun point. He’d come down from Baltimore and was declaring alliances on his own between the black GI group at Ft. Bragg and all sorts of random, basically fictitious “revolutionary” grouplets, while we were concentrating on deepening the group’s relationship with the Fayetteville Area Poor People’s Organization (FAPPO), which at its peak strength had 2,200 dues paying members, in great majority black. And that was around the same time that Eldridge Cleaver published his letter, “To My Black Brothers in Vietnam,” exhorting them to rise up and decapitate their officers. Then in 1971 a supposed Panther mysteriously appeared out of the ether to plan, in concert with eight or nine suddenly, and incongruously, radicalized black non-commissioned officers in Special Forces, what was by any measure an insane armed insurrection that, after we got over the initial shock of the obvious lunacy of it all (the plot involved ripping off an arms room on the base, setting up a guerrilla foco that would take over the old slave market that marked Fayetteville’s historic city center, then retreating to the “countryside”—nearly all of which was on Ft. Bragg, which at that point, along with its companion, Pope Air Force Base, was the largest military installation in the world—to conduct “systematic guerrilla warfare”; our mission was to mobilize a FAPPO insurrection that would create a diversion providing cover for their withdrawal from the slave market), we realized was pretty clearly a police operation intended to entrap, or worse, me and my dear friend and comrade, the late Arthur V. “Val” Hawley, then assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, who was leading the organizing effort on post.
Those were by no means the only associations I had with Panthers. In Philadelphia in 1970 I interacted frequently with the Germantown and North Philadelphia groups and, with Val, who was then stationed temporarily at Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey in logistical support of the 503rd Airborne Military Police (“Most Pigs”) Battalion that was deployed doing riot duty at the New Haven Panther trial, attended the BPP’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention-Plenary Session held at Temple University. I know that in some areas, disregarding the issue of infiltration by informants and provocateurs, Panther chapters did useful, politically important work and were able to root themselves organically in communities and work effectively in coalition with others. The Bay Area, where they were strongest of course, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, Atlanta, and Cleveland come immediately to mind. No doubt there were others. And individuals moved through the BPP experience, as was true with many ultra-left groups during that period, and came out of it as seasoned, serious, and level-headed left political operatives. My point is not to bash the BPP. I do want to make clear that, although the dialectic of revolutionary posturing and outrageous and murderous police repression was a highly visible and dramatic element of the story of late 1960s American radicalism, the more consequential political dynamic, especially with regard to black political life, was consolidation of the new black political class that has defined the content and limits of what is understood to be “black politics” ever since.
The BPP, like other radical or nationalist groups at the time, overlooked or diminished the importance of that development in part because the kind of politics they embraced, despite overlays of Marxist-seeming rhetoric, failed to apprehend the structural bases or pragmatic entailments of class differentiation among black Americans enabled by the civil rights victories. The Panthers’ and other radicals’ understanding of black political differentiation, ironically, was undermined by embrace of a Third Worldist discourse of national liberation, which posited the “people,” “nation,” “masses,” “grassroots,” “community,” or even “lumpenproletariat” as the source of transformative political agency against an external oppressor and an internal leadership stratum whose legitimacy, in radicals’ judgment, rested on authenticity in representing the collective interests of the group in relation to that oppressor.17 The Third World, or domestic colony, analogy required abstracting away from the specific character of social relations developing within the black American population via the forms “black political empowerment” took in the wake of the legislative victories of the mid-1960s, along with racial transition in urban politics and administration, and from the sources of material differentiation that increased in the 1970s and have continued increasing. For instance, growth and articulation of an increasingly self-conscious and self-referential stratum of professionals, functionaries, technicians, and managers, as well as an expanding investor class overwhelmed the interpretive and strategic capacities of the essentially moralistic politics that Rustin criticized black and white New Left radicals for embracing.
As Johnson argues, Rustin may have gone too far in dismissing the “repertoire of movement strategies” associated with protest politics. At the same time, available radical tendencies were far better at operating at high moral dudgeon than in engaging strategically and taking account of nuances of disagreement. (And, of course, entirely appropriate outrage over the genocidal war in Indochina encouraged that moralistic politics.) To wit, it is all too common to encounter old New Leftists whose bill of particulars against Rustin as a sellout begins with his effort to broker an agreement between President Johnson and the national Democratic party on the one side and, on the other, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sought to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ, instead of the openly segregationist regular Democrat delegation. Though he is hardly alone in doing so, Kim Moody, for example, brings that incident up in his criticism of Johnson vis-à-vis Rustin.18 For many New Left and Black Power radicals, that intervention was Rustin’s initial, perfidious sin, and it was followed by his heretical Commentary essays in 1965 and 1966 and more.
There is another way to look at the controversy at the 1964 Convention, however, and I reproduce below an exercise I prepared for a workshop with the Black Leadership group at UNITE HERE Local 54 in Atlantic City a few weeks after the New Jersey labor and women’s movements held the annual Women’s Day March in Atlantic City to commemorate Fannie Lou Hamer as an icon of the struggle for social justice and in particular her role with the MFDP at the Convention. The Black Leadership group met regularly to discuss pertinent issues internal and external to the local. The exercise lays out pertinent biographical information about Hamer and Rustin, sets the scene of the conflict at the Convention, and provides features of the political backdrop against which the struggle there played out. We divided the group, which was made of black and, I believe, some Hispanic officers, staff, and member leaders of the Local, into groups of four with the assignment to talk through all the relevant information and answer the questions at the end, with the understanding that they should feel free to take their group’s response in a direction different from that suggested by the questions. The responses were in part a reflection of how the union experience encourages workers to think about politics.
FANNIE LOU HAMER AND BAYARD RUSTIN IN ATLANTIC CITY, 1964
FANNIE LOU HAMER was an important civil rights and social justice activist from the Delta region of Mississippi. She was born in 1917 and like her parents was a sharecropper in Sunflower County for many years. She remained in Mississippi until her too early death in 1977 at age 59. She got involved in the civil rights movement in 1962, and she became a leader and field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). She was a central organizer of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, which was one of the largest and most visible campaigns of the civil rights movement, and she was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Fannie Lou was co-founder and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party (MFDP) that challenged the official state Democratic party organization for recognition as the legitimate delegation to the 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.
BAYARD RUSTIN was an important civil rights and labor activist born in 1912 in West Chester, PA. He died in 1987 at age 75 while he was on a humanitarian mission to Haiti. Rustin had a long and distinguished history of activism. He worked with A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in the 1941 March on Washington Movement to demand an end to segregation in the armed forces and discriminatory employment in World War II defense production. Randolph and Rustin threatened to call a march of 100,000 black men on the nation’s capital if President Franklin Roosevelt did not respond to those demands. In response, the President issued Executive Order 8802 that prohibited discrimination in defense employment and created the Fair Employment Practice Committee.
Rustin organized the first Freedom Ride in 1947 to challenge segregation in interstate transit, and he was a founder of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). He advised Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1954/55 and helped Dr. King organize the Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC). With Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council, Rustin was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom. And in 1965 with Randolph he was a founder of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Rustin also worked closely with the MFDP from the time it was formed until the 1964 Democratic Convention. He visited Mississippi regularly to meet with Ms. Hamer and others to plan strategy, and he traveled around the country to raise money for the MFDP, which he described as a “revolutionary” step forward.
ATLANTIC CITY SHOWDOWN
FANNIE LOU HAMER and other black Mississippians had tried to vote in the state’s Democratic primary in 1963 and were prevented from doing so because the regular Mississippi Democratic Party did not permit black people to belong to the party or vote in its primary, which was the only meaningful election in the state. In response to being denied the right to vote, Hamer and others created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative. The MFDP was created in accordance with the rules of the national party with the intention that the new party would be recognized at the 1964 national convention and seated as the official party in Mississippi.
The MFDP believed, probably correctly, that most delegates at the Atlantic City Convention would support seating their delegation, especially because the all-white regular Democrats’ delegation probably would not support the national ticket of President Lyndon Johnson and his choice for Vice-President, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was a longtime pro-civil rights activist in the party. But President Johnson stressed the importance of having a united convention and feared that if the all-white Mississippi delegation was not seated, other all-white southern delegations would walk out and hurt the ticket’s chances in November. He ordered the credentials committee not to decide between the two Mississippi delegations or to send the issue to the full convention to decide.
Instead, President Johnson proposed a compromise that the MFDP would not replace the regular Mississippi Democrats but would have two at-large seats that allowed them to watch but not participate in the Convention. The MFDP rejected that compromise and left the Convention. Fannie Lou said, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats, ‘cause all of us is tired.”
What may seem like a surprise is that Rustin was a go-between who tried very hard to sell the President’s proposal to the MFDP. Many of the MFDP’s supporters were angry at him for doing so and called him a “sellout.” Many people since then have also scratched their heads at why Rustin did that and agreed that he was a sellout. But was it that simple?
This is the exercise I’d like us to engage in today, to try to figure out why Rustin, who was one of the most fearless and principled figures in the civil rights movement and who was a big MFDP ally and supporter, would try to pressure Fannie Lou Hamer and the other leaders of the MFDP to accept a compromise that left such a bad taste in their mouths.
So, I’m going to list some factors that Rustin was concerned about apart from the process of seating delegations to the convention, some things on the political scene outside the convention hall that he and others, including President Johnson, worried could undermine making continued progress after the November 1964 elections. And I hope that we can transport ourselves in our minds back to the summer of 1964 and discuss those issues as Rustin and maybe even Johnson saw them and maybe how or even why they saw them in a different light from the MFDP.
Big Events and Concerns of 1964
On July 2, President Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed official segregation and employment discrimination.
Three weeks later, on July 28, the all-white Mississippi Democrats adopted a resolution saying that they “condemn and deplore the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we believe in the separation of the races in all phases of our society.” President Johnson suspected that the party’s strong support for civil rights would cost it support from white southern voters, who had been a key part of the party’s national coalition for a long time.
Two weeks after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, the Republican Convention nominated Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate. Prior to 1964, although the Republican party was more conservative and pro-business than the Democrats, it had a significant pro-civil rights wing. Goldwater represented a much more extreme right-wing faction in the party and was strongly anti-civil rights. When delegates to the convention spoke in favor of federal civil rights enforcement, they were booed and hooted down. In the South, the KKK openly supported Goldwater.
Rustin also worried that a white backlash against the civil rights movement was growing outside the South. There were reasons for his worries. For one example, Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, ran in several Democratic presidential primaries outside the South and did surprisingly well.
Between July 16 and July 22, riots broke out in Harlem after a white police officer shot and killed a fifteen-year-old black youth. Republicans and other anti-civil rights activists tried to use the violence that erupted after the killing to paint a picture of black lawlessness.
Rustin was so troubled by what he feared was a growing white backlash that he proposed that the civil rights movement call a moratorium on big demonstrations until after the November elections. Randolph, MLK, and the other national civil rights leadership agreed.
The Freedom Summer campaign organized by Fannie Lou and others brought more than 1,000 volunteers, many of them white college students, from out of state to work for several weeks in an intense effort to register black voters in Mississippi. Many of those doing that work, including Fannie Lou, were jailed, beaten, and held in conditions that only could be called torture. The violence and terror included the kidnapping and murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner not long after they arrived in the state.
At the Atlantic City convention, Rustin wasn’t alone in trying to sell the President’s proposal. Dr. King and other national civil rights leaders also urged the MFDP to accept it. The MFDP was prepared to compromise and indicated possible support for two different proposals. One would have seated whatever individuals from either delegation who pledged to support the national ticket, and another would have seated both delegations and given each member one-half vote. The national party leadership insisted on its offer of two non-voting seats. In addition, President Johnson insisted that Fannie Lou could not be one of those two delegates.
Even though the MFDP left the convention rather than accept a compromise they considered demeaning, Rustin and others pointed out that they really won the struggle because part of even the President’s proposal was that no delegation selected on a discriminatory basis would ever again be seated at a Democratic convention. He also praised the MFDP for playing “a revolutionary role both within the Civil Rights Movement and within the Democratic Party.” And he thought they “demonstrated beyond a doubt that politics and protest could be combined intelligently.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT ALL THIS? IS IT REALLY EVEN AN ISSUE OF WHO WAS RIGHT AND WHO WAS WRONG?
Each group reported a variant of the same response, namely that the difference between Rustin’s and Hamer’s positions seemed to reflect something like the differences in perspective between a local and an international union. In their view, Hamer was intensely focused on the immediate struggle in Mississippi and the powerful and intensely personal desire to oust the segregationists who openly indicated that they would not support the party’s platform, while Rustin focused on the broader perspective and longer view, particularly with an eye toward the necessity of defeating Barry Goldwater in November. They appreciated and perhaps empathized more with Hamer’s and her MFDP colleagues’ stance but also understood Rustin’s perspective. Each group’s rapporteur indicated that their group did not find either Hamer’s or Rustin’s position objectively correct or incorrect, that each group assumed that Hamer and Rustin were joined by a fundamental solidarity that, ideally, would have made an acceptable compromise possible but that, if not, at a minimum would have prevented the dissensus from causing lasting harm to the political relation.
UNITE HERE Local 54 is in some ways a particularly impressive union with a great history of solidarity in pursuit and defense of decent living standards and security for its members and all workers in Atlantic City.19 Only a few years earlier, Local 54 faced a somewhat analogous circumstance when the members had to decide whether to strike the Trump Taj Mahal casino, then operated by nefarious corporate raider and Trump crony, Carl Icahn. Passions were extremely high during discussions over whether to go out, and with good reason, but the discussions were also governed by astute strategic thinking that traded off short- and long-term costs and benefits. At the same time the local and its members are typical of what working-class solidarity can be and can accomplish, and typical of the sort of politics we need, as Rustin understood so clearly, to protect and advance the conditions of black Americans and all working people.