Firebombs or a Freedom Budget?
Since the beginning of this nation, we have attempted to make a moral and psychological analysis of prejudice [and] the economic and social degradation to which it has led. And I am afraid we are still doing so. Even amongst the so-called young Negro revolutionaries, today. Certainly, this has been true of whites throughout our history.
We have behaved as if the problem were a psychological one and one of just plain hatred to the Negro. It was never such. And it is not now such and we will not deal with the problems in the future as such.
To make clear what I am saying I want to give a few examples.
Thomas Jefferson awoke one night in a sweat. He had just had a nightmare. What was that nightmare? That he had seen the flag of the United States being torn asunder. Negroes pulling on one end—the slaves—and whites pulling back. And the nation was torn to bits. He rose from his nightmare, sat down at his desk, took a pen and created a moral response. That is to say he wrote that on his death the slaves should be manumitted, that they should be set free. Therein you have the basic problem that has plagued us from the beginning. Jefferson did not do what he ought to have done. Noble as the manumitting of slaves was at his death, no one here could be against that. What he should have done, if the Civil War was truly not to rend this nation to bits, in the most vicious battle that has ever taken place—making what is happening in Vietnam look like peanuts, morally.
He should have made a moral response which led to political conclusions. He should therefore have gone into Congress with a program—and a politically meaningful program—for the elimination of slavery. But it remained a moral attitude.
As great as the abolitionists were they too made the same mistake. They were all against slavery because it is morally wrong. But name, for me, one abolitionist who had an economic and social program for what was to be done when that war concluded. And who in the process of that war projected economic and social problems. (It is often said that Negroes have no program, we always had an economic and political problem. It was we who said we want 40 acres and a mule in order to start life again when slavery is finished.)
The abolitionists turned their backs on an economic and social program. They got tired and they disappeared into thin air. Even today the radical young Negroes—who I understand, have affection for, and have worked with, and who I profoundly respect—nevertheless, are making the same basic mistake. The argument being we want black power, whatever that is with no real definition of it. We want self-respect. We want Negro dignity. All of which I am in favor of. But it is another blind alley.
Because dignity and self-respect must spring from the economic and social position which you hold in the society, and cannot be mythologically and viscerally created out of some new response of dignity, where the objective situation indeed makes dignity impossible.
Now the big question before the United States is whether we’re going to understand one thing:
In Nigeria today there is as great brutality on the part of blacks to blacks as any place else in the world. At the moment. I say, my dear friends, that no economic or social order has ever been developed on the basis of color. It must be developed on the basis of class. I have more in common with a member of the Young Socialist League who sees the degree to which there must be socialization of this nation than I have with Jackie Robinson, a black banker!
Because no social movement can be fundamentally built on color. But we must see that all men are capable of brutality and that the likelihood is, if the proposition were reversed, blacks would be as brutal as whites. And if one sees the universality of the possibility of brutality and racism then one looks somewhere else for answers to problems. Surely, the most brutal behavior [occurred] when Martin Luther King was asking that Negroes should have the right to have houses in Chicago, but it didn’t take any description of brutality and white racism for me to understand that problem. The problem is simple, since racism is basically possible in all groups. The problem is: do you build an economic and social structure which has so much injustice in it, that racism is raised from the bottom and socially and politically organized? Or do you build the kind of economic and social order which reduces the possibility of that prejudice to an irreducible minimum where it cannot be politically and socially organized? That’s the problem.
Martin King and any other Negro leader will be stoned in these cities—and that’s the reason I was shocked by Martin King’s talking about the disruption of cities which I’m happy that he never proceeded to carry out—because the problem is not plain prejudice which is there in all people, it is in the economic and social order where there are not enough jobs in the society, where there is not enough housing in the society, where there is not enough medical care in this society, a society in which the lower middle-class whites are up to here economically and are therefore more filled with economic fear than Negroes are with frustration—walk into that situation and you will be stoned.
If only, on the other hand, there had been adequate housing in Chicago; if there were adequate jobs; if this nation were not insisting upon a four percent unemployment rate as being good for the society. No matter how much prejudice there was at the bottom, it could not have expressed itself in political organization.
Now having said that, 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.
Let me therefore call the modern revolution, that which began with the Montgomery Bus protest [in] 1955. But that period ended in the ‘65 period after we had received the Civil Rights Bill and the Voter Rights Bill. Therefore, in order that I can help us understand the nature of the situation, I’m going to divide the problem into two parts.
I shall refer to period one, by which I mean the period from the Montgomery bus protests to the passage of the Voter Rights Bill. I shall refer then, in contrast, to period number two, which is the period we are now in.
In period number one, we were fighting almost exclusively for those things which affected Negroes alone. The right to vote, which any white person had, the right for public accommodations, which all white people had. They were the two great thrusts of that period. That’s what the Montgomery Bus protest was about. That’s what the freedom rides were about, that’s what the sit-ins were about. That’s what the March on Washington was about, etc. That’s what Selma was about, [what] Birmingham was about.
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.
They are the four great demands of the Negro people today. But those demands are the result of basic contradictions in our society and not demands to brutalize the Negro. Now when we learn that we will learn a great deal about strategy and tactics.
The Senate did not turn down 37 to 33 today not to give drugs to people over 65 because they wanted to brutalize Negroes, but because we have a Senate that doesn’t give a damn what happens to elderly people. That is a contradiction in the whole nature of American society! And it is at that contradiction, that the problems for the Negroes will be solved or they will not be solved at all.
People accuse me of being too liberal and too close to the establishment. Perhaps I am. But I have more sense about the nature of the white community than they have.
This society never has and never will do anything special for the Negro. That is the reason we call it the freedom budget for all Americans. It is not that I do not know that Negroes are most brutalized by poverty for they are! But I also know that 67 percent of the poor are white and unless we are going to draw up programs which have to do with the elimination of poverty and not concerned with Negro poverty we will not get anywhere in the society.
If the society were now prepared to do something special for Negroes, it would not have been required that something special be done for Negroes. That is just the problem!
Number two: In the first period, ‘55 to ‘65, the nature of American pressure on the Negro community would not permit the class struggle to emerge in the Negro community. Ralph Bunche couldn’t vote some places, he couldn’t eat some places and where he couldn’t eat neither could the sharecropper. But now you come along with the civil rights bill giving all Negroes the right to use public accommodations and to vote. And what this means is that Negroes who have money, who are economically independent enough, can vote and those who don’t cannot. Negroes who have money to use hotels, theaters, restaurants can use them and those who don’t cannot. Thus for the first time now, we are not only faced with the caste problem vis-a-vis the whites but equally vicious is now the internal class problem within the Negro community.
So then at Watts they said to me, “Mr. Rustin you’re a house nigger why don’t you go on back to New York, nothing you can do to talk to us. Same thing with you Martin Luther King, because you niggers have made it and we haven’t.” The class problem means that not only must Negroes now fight for their rights in the general society, but that those Negroes who do not have it are as angry at Negroes who have made it as they are at whites who have it. That is a very new element in the picture.
Thirdly, when you talk in the early period about the right to vote and about the right to eat in public accommodations, you were talking about something that the government doesn’t have to put up any money for—except when Medgar Evers gets shot, they have to send some police out to see if they can find who shot him. Or if Martin King’s having a demonstration, the federal government may send in a few marshals to watch.
In the current period, since no city including Boston has money to put its unemployed back to work; and since no city including Boston has enough money for a decent educational system; since no city including Boston can in fact find an answer to the problem of housing without federal aid, this is a period where billions of dollars must come from the federal government if anything at all is to occur.
In the early period—make no joke about it—I sat with Negro leaders night after night during those ten years, planning. We did not create the dynamic of that revolution from ‘55 to ‘65. That dynamic for the revolution was created by Bull Connor, and his dogs, and his fire hoses, and the killing of people, and the bombing of churches.
In this new period, the Negro people cannot be unified by Bull Connor’s dogs. And white support cannot be created by Southern brutality. Because it isn’t going to exist anymore in the form it did. That means therefore that we must now create the dynamic for that change ourselves. (That’s a very different thing and I submit to anybody here who is Jewish to think on the fact that if there had been no Hitler, I doubt there would be a Palestine today, an Israel.)
The point I’m making is there are times when negative factors in the society can congeal things. This is a time where negative factors in the community pull things apart.
In the old period, all the youngsters needed was bravery and perseverance. They just sat at the restaurants, they swam in the swimming pools, no matter what they did to them. They arrested them, they’d come back. They beat them, they’d come back and finally get a breakthrough. No young Negroes today with mere courage and perseverance are going to make any contribution. For in this period one needs an analysis of politics, one needs an analysis of the processes of social change, one needs to know how to build alliances. One needs to know sociology, economics, and psychology. And the old leadership is dead and a part of the shenanigans which you now see is the interim period where some youngsters still think that they have now transferred their speechmaking at Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery to national television. But they will tell us nothing about the nature of social change, nor do they have a program, economic, social or political.
Now there’s one other factor. In the old period, we were coasting on an internal psychological wave that was moving toward progress. That is to say, if you had asked any individual in this nation—particularly in the university—“What is the most compelling problem we face between ‘55 and ‘65?” invariably they would have said, the civil rights movement. Since ‘65 we have been moving against the psychological concern of the liberal forces of this nation. If you now ask the average American what is the most compelling problem, he will say “ending the war in Vietnam,” and he is right. So that psychologically the war in Vietnam has trapped us.
It has split the civil rights movement down the middle. It has caused many white people who were in it to say, “that must wait now until we stop Vietnam.” And this has made it possible for a congressional backlash—which is always going to fight progress—the war has given them a patriotic platform on which to stand for the stopping of that progress.
And let me say here lest there be some confusion, the notion that we can do nothing about the domestic problems until we deal with Vietnam is vicious. It is precisely what Goldwater and Eastland say. And if anyone expects me to go back to the ghetto and tell Negroes that I’ve just been talking with my white liberal friends who convinced me that nothing can be done for you until the war in Vietnam is over, then I think I must have holes in my head.
But I want to point it out more differently. My friends, if the war in Vietnam were over tomorrow morning, I would still want more money than we are spending in Vietnam for use in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For the creation of democratic institutions there. And for the relief of people who are starving in India. And if we are not prepared, when the war in Vietnam is over, to insist on more money than is being spent there for our positive international convictions, we are in trouble.
Therefore, the war in Vietnam is not an economic and financial problem. We have the wealth to do both. It becomes a psychological and political problem because we do not have the courage to fight off in our own mind left-wing concepts, which are printed as right-wing concepts and vice versa. Because it is here that you will find the SDS and the Birchites saying the same thing about the Freedom Budget: It’s no good until the war in Vietnam is over. And whether they say it for different reasons or not does not bother me, because the reasons that people behave politically as they do is unimportant. It is that there is a political alliance between them to destroy it.
Now finally in this regard my dear friends, there is something else. The period from ‘55 to ‘65 was a period of faith: We shall overcome, we shall never turn back, we should never turn back, Martin Luther King had a dream on August 28, 1963.
No Negroes have a dream today. They are all having nightmares. This is not a period of hope, this is a period of despair. And make no confusion about it. While we cannot get rid of rioting unless we do something now about housing, schools and jobs and representation; it was not bad housing, bad schools, bad jobs, and the absence of participation which caused the riots.
The riots were caused by hopelessness. That nobody believes in the Negro community, that tomorrow, or a week from next Thursday, or year from now or ten years from now, that there will be full employment; that there will be the destruction of slums; that there will be public health measures; that there will be decent schools; that there will be representation. That was the cause of the riots. The hopelessness.
Now I come therefore to the Freedom Budget because the Freedom Budget is for the purpose of restoring hope. In a situation, the Freedom Budget is very simple. It says, number one. While we are all for everything which has been done in the War on Poverty and why we must fight it now. We have to fight for the War on Poverty, though it is relatively insignificant. Why do we have to fight for it? Because we must continue to establish that this nation has an obligation to eliminate poverty. Here again, though I criticize the War on Poverty I will not join the Birchites who would be delighted to have me say it’s no damn good.
The War on Poverty never could have worked to eliminate poverty because, my friends, the only way to eliminate poverty is to see that the heads of families of the poor are economically independent. Now I love children and I think something needs to be done for 17 year olds. But to send youngsters to jobs corps to graduate where there are no jobs and you know there are no jobs before you send them there, is to build Molotov cocktails and send them back into the ghetto.
Now I love children, and I am all for Head Start as far as it goes. But anybody ought to know that you can’t have a head start and then send the children back to the same ghetto schools, the same houses with rats and roaches, the same teachers who cannot care, the same parents who are separated, and think you’ve done something. Just the opposite has been proven.
And Moynihan’s report could have been written about Mr. Moynihan’s Irish in 1910 [Applause]. And Moynihan’s report could have been written by some Italian about the Italians in 1912. In fact, Mr. Moynihan didn’t write the best nor the most incisive report: it was written by E. Franklin Frazier of Howard University, who was black. As long as he was black nobody jumped on him, Moynihan is white, he’s gotta get jumped on. [Laughter]
But my friends, this is what we know from Italians and Irish—who are two groups who had very similar problems of high crime rate, family instability, and all the other things described in the Moynihan report—the society created objective situations which made it possible for the heads of those families to gain economic independence. And as the heads of families gained economic independence, all the problems in the community were gradually reduced. Now we’re trying to reverse it. If we will only help the little children—three and four [years old]—and the teenagers for whom there are no jobs, leaving a father who still cannot be respected and a mother who is harassed, somehow or other the Negroes are going to create a miracle.
While I happen to believe that Negroes are very beautiful people, we are not gonna create any damn miracles.
Now the Freedom Budget not only does something about children, and teenagers but it goes to the heads of family. It says: “Who is poor and what significance does it have?” All this talk that you university people do about “the disadvantaged” and “the acculturated” and uh … lay off it. [Laughter]
There is only one difference between a man who is rich and one who is poor: one has money and one does not. [Applause]
There is one respect in which I know I am more cultured than Governor Rockefeller. [Laughter]
I do not have an agent go to Europe and buy my Picassos. I go to auctions around New York and pick out my own paintings according to my ability. That’s culture. Rocky buys his through agents. But that has nothing to do with how much money he’s got, or I have.
Now if poverty is a problem, ladies and gentlemen, let’s face it. The Freedom Budget says, put money into the hands of the poor so that they can no longer be described as poor, for something will happen when they get money.
Now in case there are any dyed-in-the-wool capitalists here, I want to reassure you. The first thing they’re going to do when they get this money is to go out and buy the filthy junk you produce and advertise on television. [Laughter]
Now that may sound like a joke, but this is a part of the economic theory I’m expounding: that to the degree that we put money in their hands and they go out and buy televisions, and shoes, and baby carriages, and toothbrushes, and toothpaste, and the kind of perfume men use to get the pimples so the girls will love them—when they buy all these things, our gross national product increases. And it is from that gross national product that we want to get this money for the Freedom Budget.
(Now, having dealt with the dyed-in-the-wool capitalist—I started to call them the black capitalists, but we don’t call nobody black today who ain’t. But that’s another matter.)
Number one, public works. Now forget Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the WPA because I’m not talking about anything like that. I am talking about public works for the benefit of the rich and the poor equally. Now since I talked about Rocky, let me talk about Kennedy for a minute. Kennedy is a very poor man: he announced last spring he can no longer take his children on the Hudson in his yacht, because it’s so dirty. Well let’s help him. First of all, we’ll put many of these poor back to work cleaning our rivers, so that Robert Kennedy can take his pretty little children sailing on the Hudson in their yacht.
But here again, I don’t want to be partisan. Let’s help Rockefeller, alright we help Rocky, he comes into New York five or six times a week and he’s no better off than the dope addict on Harlem’s street in regard to the air he breathes. It is filthy. So we put thousands of these people back to work cleaning the air so poor Rocky is not so poor. (Incidentally now all the colored people also, up and down Lennox Avenue can be a little more spirited because their lungs are cleaner too.)
Now we repeat this in building subway systems. We repeat this in building hospitals. We repeat this in building schools. We repeat this in doing a thousand things but—I don’t want those young Negroes and poor whites just going out there to deal with air pollution as if they were dragging leaves. I want many of them to be trained in the process to become assistant engineers and those who have the ability to get an engineering diploma out of the air rather than from the Board of Governors of Harvard—that we create a new concept of education in the process.
Number two for all those who cannot work those who are too young, too sick, too psychologically cripple and physically cripple, that they get a guaranteed income and for nobody else. Number three, that there be family allowances, which every civilized country has, that there be medical care completely free. This is what the freedom budget has.
Last summer I’m in Britain and I catch a terrible cold. So, I go to a doctor and when I leave I say doctor how much do I owe you? He says, “nothing.” And I said, “Oh Doctor, I didn’t know that the British medical system took care of foreigners.” He looked at me as if I was stupid. He said, “Why not foreigners.” He said, “There’s plenty of foreigners who can’t pay.” I said, “But I can pay.” He said, “Oh we don’t care about your few pennies, what we care about is that you’re not down in the Underground sniffling and sneezing giving the rest of us colds.” Well, I thought that was a perfectly magnificent philosophically selfish way of looking at it!
Furthermore, I believe that we must stop fooling ourselves, poor whites and poor Negroes are not ever going to go to college in this country again on the basis of these few puny scholarships that Harvard and Yale and the others get together and pat themselves on the back about. I would prefer to see them put every poor student out on a scholarship and use the money they are devoting to him, to the political process whereby everyone who has a brain in his head can study from the time he is in kindergarten to PhD, and redefine study as work, and give him a salary for going to school. [Applause]
These are some of the things the Freedom Budget calls for, the Freedom Budget furthermore says that until that when we talk about Negroes helping themselves, Negroes are prepared to help themselves. One fourth of all the Negro poor are not unemployed. They are working, at beneath minimum wages, in the cotton fields of Mississippi for $3 a day, in houses as maids at $8 a week in Montgomery Alabama. Help themselves…
Now we want a $2 minimum wage so that Negro people who are working and deserve a decent wage shall have it. Now you will say to me Mr. Rustin, my father owns a little store and he couldn’t possibly pay $2 dollar minimum wage. If he owns a tiny little store you’re probably right. I want to help him too. Oh, I want to help everybody. [Laughter]
If we can subsidize Mr. Rockefeller’s and Mr. Harrington’s railways for billions of dollars and if we can give farmers billions of dollars—because they don’t plant, or because they plant here, or because they burn this crop, and save this one—then I am for a $2 minimum wage in which those employers who cannot afford truly to pay it, receive subsidies from the government in order to pay it. I am not for brutalizing the poor small businessman. I am for helping the worker who is exploited—and if to do that we have to help the small businessman, amen.
Now some of the criticisms of the Freedom Budget I’ll have done in just a second. One thing people say about the Freedom Budget is well “Mr. Rustin you have a section in there in which you actually talk about defense figures. How could you talk about defense figures? Aren’t you against the war in Vietnam?” I most certainly am. But my friends, if you’re going to make a chart, as to how money can be spent, and if that money is to come from the GNP, then you have to chart that on the basis of all the money the government gets, and all the things they have to spend money for, to prove that they can take three-and-a-half percent of it for the Freedom Budget which is precisely the figure we took in order to have the Marshall Plan, to lift Europe.
Well now if you’re going to have the Marshall Plan you can’t say “well I’m gonna hide my back to the fact that we’re spending money on the military.” We had to put those figures in, to prove how all the money would be spent, therefore we had to estimate how much the Federal Government was going to spend on military things, it wasn’t that we wanted them to do it, but we had to make a sensible estimate.
The second criticism of the Freedom Budget is, that it doesn’t say enough about the participation of the poor. But I want to make it quite clear there’s nobody who has spent more of his life trying to make it possible for the poor to express themselves.
I am all for—like the young militant Negroes—the right of Negroes to have a decision over their lives, everybody else has? Why not us? But I am not going to fall for a gang of foolishness.
Ultimately in a democracy, real participation of the poor—whether radicals like to think so or not, until the moment of revolution comes (by which I mean violent revolution)—is in the political processes of the major political parties, and the minor political parties which affect their behavior. Now you take a small group of Negroes working on housing in Newark, New Jersey.
They think because they get together and vote Mrs. Smith onto some board that that’s real democratic participation. It is possible only if we can get a Freedom Budget, in which the United States is committing billions of dollars to being sent into Newark. Otherwise, Mrs. Jones is sitting on a committee voting in the vacuum that no matter what those Negroes on that committee decide, it ultimately doesn’t make any difference because there isn’t any money anyhow!
So I am saying that in the process of insisting on the right to be heard, and to help make decisions, that is a process of masturbation, unless it is overall covered by a financial policy and priorities in the nation that is meaningful. The Freedom Budget stands for the change of priorities; national planning; the government becoming the employer of last resort; the government becoming the houser of last resort; the dedication of putting sufficient money in the people’s pockets so that they can live in this affluent society with dignity; free education; free medical care. But much, much, much, more important than anything else is that we in the freedom budget don’t think we have all the answers. For an example, we don’t think we really have the answers on how you get the best methods within the political structure for the participation of the poor. In your workshops tomorrow, we would welcome a discussion of that, because we don’t have the answers. We don’t know, for an example, how much of this can be done by private enterprise, how much needs to be done—in the overall picture—by a combination of private enterprise and government; and how much must be exclusively done by government. We welcome your suggestions from these discussions you have tomorrow in helping us out in these regards.
Let me just say in conclusion my friends, that we are up against the most difficult period of American history that we have ever faced. Now I don’t think anybody can accuse me of being a red-hot firebrand. Nobody can say that I haven’t made my criticisms of Black Power where I think there are negative criticisms. Nobody can say that I haven’t jumped on SNCC for their anti-Semitic letter that they put out. Nobody can say that I haven’t defended what I believe to be right and that I can be critical. But having said that I want to say to my white friends that although I am very distressed with the behavior of some young Negroes, how could we have expected that this kind of disaffection, and disregard for America and what it stands, could have been avoided.
I am not threatening because I do not threaten. But I am here to say to you that young Negroes today are a totally different breed from my generation. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes have trouble understanding them. When I went downtown, my grandmother said to me “Bayard, don’t you go nowhere near no white woman. And if you see any bothering you, or asking you the time, or directions, just pretend you don’t hear her and keep on going because they’re nothing but trouble. Bayard, when you go downtown whether you’re right or wrong, whatever the policeman tells you to do, you do it. Even if you’re right, do what he tells you to do faster and get out because he’s only going to brutalize you. Bayard, when you go downtown and any white people call you nigger, or black bastard, or rub your head—let them rub your head for good luck—just don’t say nothing…” No, this happened friends. “Don’t say anything.”
Well now you’ve got to admit. That young Negroes rejecting that kind of thing, and standing up, and saying “all right I’m not going to put up with this anymore.” They are not friends. They mean it. There are elements in the society, in the Negro community which out of a developing manhood—and not because they are devils—would in fact prefer to see the society destroyed and the cities burned down if they cannot have respect.
We have got to make peace with this. And the only way we can give them that respect is not by urging them to study Swahili. And not by urging them to collect African art. And not by appeasing them, in conferences by giving them 50 percent of the votes when they are 10 percent of the people. And not by permitting white guilt to endure any Negro indignity. It is by coming into the battle to fight for those economic and social demands which alone can bring freedom to the poor and relieve the Negro, the most desperately poor of all.
Our thanks to Dustin Guastella for bringing this talk to our attention.