The Obamas’ “Rustin”: Fun Tricks You Can Do on the Past
When I learned that the Obamas were producing a biopic on Bayard Rustin, I shuddered a bit in apprehension of what such a project would be. Reports from friends who saw it before I did were not encouraging. After watching it I can confirm their pithiest assessments: 1) “It’s far worse than even you could imagine”; 2) “My two-word review would be: malicious presentism”; and, from one who was a politically active adult through the period the film covers, 3) “The trailer was enough for me, and I couldn’t get through that.” Indeed, it was so banal and wrong-headed that immediately after it ended, I watched “The Battle of Algiers” as a purgative.
What the trailer made clear was that as far as the film was concerned, the 1963 March on Washington, in which he did play a crucial part, was the Alpha and Omega of Rustin’s career. His politics and his role in the crucial debates over ways forward from the legislative victories of 1964 and 1965—which are arguably what’s most important about Rustin for making sense of our time—don’t come up in this story because it conveniently ends with the 1963 march.
Predictably then, Rustin opens with a montage of staged reconstructions of iconic images of “stoic protesters surrounded by screaming racists” from the high period of activism in the southern civil rights movement, including a live-action version of Norman Rockwell’s painting of Ruby Bridges walking (in the film, skipping), surrounded by U.S. marshals, to desegregate William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.1 Manohla Dargis describes this opening move as a gesture at “a little historical scene-setting,” but to the extent that popular understanding of the civil rights movement goes no deeper than those and other disconnected images of the bad old-timey times, the scene set is at best of questionable value.2
In characterizing the film as “a work of reclamation and celebration,” Dargis notes that it “seeks to put its subject front and center in the history he helped to make and from which he has, at times, been elided, partly because, as an openly gay man, he challenged both convention and the law.”3 That’s the film in a nutshell. But even with its small-bore aims, the film fails on virtually every front.
Dargis again is astute:
The largest problem with the movie is that it’s finally too conventional, formally and politically, to do full justice to the complexities of either the civil-rights movement or Rustin, a socialist whose activism was rooted in his Quakerism and was informed both by his moral beliefs and by economic analysis. When Rustin and other activists on the Left first planned the march, economics was at the fore. “The dynamic that has motivated” Black Americans in their own fight against racism, the plan read, “may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind the demands for a broad and fundamental program for economic justice.”4
In its effort to establish his importance, Rustin falsely attributes to him principal responsibility for proposing and executing the March on Washington, which originated with A. Philip Randolph and was largely organized by Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council. In what feels like an ass-covering gesture intended to thwart such a criticism, the Obamas’ and director George C. Wolfe’s Rustin gives substantial screen time to Cleveland Robinson, then Secretary-Treasurer of District 65 Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union and a founding officer of the NALC, as well as Randolph’s successor as president. However, it depicts him, oddly (perhaps because Robinson was Jamaican?), as an avatar of a Garveyite-like bombastic race man politics. The film also downplays the larger role of the labor movement in organizing the March, treating the unions off-handedly, mainly as obstructionist. Yet two months before the March, the United Auto Workers were central in organizing a 125,000-strong Detroit Walk to Freedom, which was essentially a trial run for the later event. (As also suits this moment, the place of trade unionists in the film is taken by smart, energetic young people.) Randolph and Rustin, as Dargis indicates, originally conceived the March’s focal point as a demand for jobs but broadened its scope to accommodate the southern movement’s paramount concern with attacking Jim Crow. Randolph said at the March, “Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-generated automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”
Ending the film at the March sidesteps consideration of Randolph and Rustin’s prime commitment to full employment and social wage policy, which three years later they crafted systematically and agitated for in the “Freedom Budget” for All Americans. Some of Rustin’s most significant political interventions occurred after the March, in particular his 1965 (“From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement”) and 1966 (“‘Black Power’ and Coalition Politics”) Commentary essays. The first argued that with the legislative victories of the mid-’60s the black movement had crossed a major threshold that called for a shift to working with labor and liberals to advance a broadly social-democratic agenda; the second examined the limits of Black Power sensibility. In contrasting Black Power to the Freedom Budget, he noted that “advocates of ‘black power’ have no such programs in mind; what they are arguing for (perhaps unconsciously) is the creation of a new black establishment.” It would be interesting, but far too close to home, for the Obama vehicle to reflect on that assessment nearly sixty years down the road.
Those elisions may reflect the film’s “malicious presentism” in its desire to create an exalted Rustin more amenable to contemporary neoliberal sensibilities. One clear illustration of that tendency is when, in an early meeting to discuss the March idea with NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, Rustin scores him for “counting on the courts to eradicate racial inequity.” Rustin would certainly have referred to “inequality,” not the terminology of neoliberal race relations engineers. In a later scene, affirming a companion’s lament about the excessive constraints of black middle-class social norms, Rustin remarks on “the suffocating chains of Negro respectability.” In current antiracist patter that phrase has become a cliché expressing a quasi-populist sensibility critical of putative black elite adherence, implicitly inauthentic racially, to conventional (“white”) standards of propriety in public self-presentation. However, neither Rustin, Randolph, nor King would have shared that critical perspective, which was fundamentally at odds with their own default ways of being in the world and their standards for participating in movement actions, including the March on Washington and, as I discuss below, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
But this line of criticism is in a way for leftists the low-hanging fruit, certainly the tack readers would expect me to take. There never was any reason to believe that a vehicle bearing the Obamas’ nihil obstat would come within a zip code of lauding working-class based, social-democratic politics. However, the film is problematic and revealing, and deeply pernicious, in other ways as well.
The project of “reclamation and celebration” proceeds from a common impulse to rediscover/invent black Greats who by force of their own will make “change” or “contributions.” In Ava Duvernay’s Selma Martin Luther King Jr. shows up and exudes a beatific glow that makes things happen.5 These films and filmmakers have no clue how movements are reproduced as mass projects, from the bottom up and top down, in a trajectory plotted by continuously improvised response to and anticipation of layers of internal and external pressures. But that’s not their point. Rustin isn’t interested in illuminating the intricacies of the civil rights movement; it wants us to recognize its subject’s place in a pantheon of black and American Greats. Toward that end, it keeps telling us—over and over—how close Rustin was personally to King and his family, as though propinquity to Universally Recognized Greatness cements his place in the pantheon. An irony is that the March on Washington became King’s event, as historian William P. Jones points out, only after the fact. I know at least two people who attended the March but left before King spoke: it was late August in Washington, D.C.; people were dressed up, and he was, after all, another southern Baptist preacher.
Bayard Rustin was a brilliant organizer and strategist, not least because he was motivated by a practical utopian vision of the society he wanted to realize. That vision and his clarity regarding a path toward it helped him to parse in a distinctively clear way tensions and contradictions within the movement, particularly as it faced the major crossroad in the mid-1960s. Disconnecting him from that vision has enabled characterizing him as an advocate of “coalition politics,” as though that were itself a political principle. That characterization comes with a timestamp; it grew out of the debate over Black Power in the late 1960s for which an animating question was “Can blacks attain freedom or racial justice on their own?” The question was always wrongheaded, not least because it begged several others—e.g., which voices count as those of “blacks”? What does “freedom” mean concretely in policy and programmatic terms?—that Rustin stood out among his contemporaries in posing because he had a clear vision of the world that should be.
He was probably not, as the film has Randolph say to Wilkins in discussing the March idea, the “only one person who can organize an event of this scale”; no one ever is. He was crucially instrumental in organizing it, though, and in other important initiatives and controversies in the period. He was also the consummate staff person who understood his role as executing collectively defined objectives and maintained a keen eye for potential trade-offs between long-term and short-term objectives. That characteristic earned him the enmity of many radicals when he sought to persuade the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party contingent at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to accept the in some ways distasteful compromise the Johnson administration offered for seating delegates.
The staff mentality typically does not lead to assignment to the pantheon of larger-than-life Greats, whose personae float high above the realm of mundane horse trading. Unfortunately, in the hegemony of a culture that looks for The One—from John Galt and Bill Gates to Neo and T’Challa to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Barack Obama and DeRay McKesson—appreciation of Rustin requires attempting to shoehorn him into the Justice League or an All-Star roster of inspiring Black Leaders and Exemplars, not grappling with him as an agent within the history he lived. This is a context in relation to which we should consider the film’s treatment of Rustin’s sexuality.
His openness as a gay man is one of the personally remarkable things about Rustin, an expression of the courage that comes from simply refusing to be cowed. In Rustin his sexuality and the now-standard narrative lamenting the impact of others’ homophobia on his not having gotten his due recognition—and the reality there is more complex than that narrative: what would due recognition have looked like, then or now, and who confers or controls access to it?—work to blur the distinction between Rustin as a political operative and as an individual. (I understand that that distinction has been under attack since literature professors began imagining in the 1980s that their academic practice is a subversive politics. It isn’t, and the distinction is both real and important.) The film even invents a risky affair with a young, married, and closeted minister and NAACP field organizer as a leitmotiv to keep his sexuality at the center of its narrative. The move also provides a vehicle to displace a whole range of problems into the unequivocal moral universe of ‘the dangers of being a black, gay man in the ’60s,’ which in turn reinforces the barely subliminal neoliberal exhortation to register “oh god, look how much we’ve progressed.”
It is only to be expected that people may speculate as to whether Rustin’s sexuality informed his political perspective in one way or another. And it may well be that, like being black or being a Quaker, being gay buttressed Rustin’s sense of injustice at inequality. Being black and the child of sharecroppers no doubt had some influence on shaping SNCC chair John Lewis’s politics; or being the child of left-leaning professors influenced Julian Bond’s; or being a certain sort of Catholic contributed to Philip Murray’s and Michael Harrington’s; or for that matter being another sort of Catholic shaped Phyllis Schlafly’s or Pat Buchanan’s.
The key point, however, is that we know and care about Bayard Rustin as a gay man only because of his prominence as a civil rights and social justice activist. There were no doubt openly gay postal workers, bricklayers, and merchant seamen who were Rustin’s contemporaries; we don’t know about them because they were not public figures. As Chris Rock (who Dargis observes in polite understatement was miscast as Roy Wilkins in the film) said during the O.J. Simpson hysteria, the murder case drew national attention not because of race but because of fame. “If O.J. drove a bus, he wouldn’t even be O.J.; he’d be Orenthal, the bus-driving murderer.” Similarly, in the late 1930s, as I report in The South, my grandmother breached local Jim Crow etiquette in public transit in the voluntarist way that common folklore attributes erroneously to Rosa Parks. On her own and for whatever reason, she decided one day to violate the norm that whites should board the streetcar before blacks. Precisely because she did it spontaneously in the way of the mythology of Rosa Parks, no one outside our family has ever heard of Elizabeth Collins Macdonald, and there has never been any discussion of recognizing her “place” in a broader stream of African American or American history.
Moreover, the idea of “place in” or “contribution to” may be the most insidious feature of an understanding of history as allegory that “goes to the past as a source of often cherry-picked ‘lessons’ for the present, a trove of inspiring and uplifting stories, or ‘anticipations’ and cautionary tales.”6 This is what underlies the project of “reclamation and celebration” that Rustin exemplifies. The impulse to find or recover individuals and situate them in their “proper” places in history—that is, how they should have been recognized were it not for benighted features of bygone days—dominates academic as well as popular examination of the past and is so thoroughly hegemonic that no one even notices the tendentious, ideological premises regarding past, present, and the idea of historicity itself from which it proceeds. Rarely does anyone—again, among scholars, game-show hosts, or anyone in between—ever ask what it means to have a “place in history” or who decides what those places are and determines who belongs where or what counts as “contributions” and who deserves credit for having made them or, for that matter, what counts as credit.
A simple contrast may bring this point home. When the National Baseball Hall of Fame decided in 2022 to accord Major League status to seven Negro professional Leagues that existed between 1920 and 1948, parameters for determining contributions to baseball, although debatable at the margins, were explicit and concrete. Performance-based criteria, universally recognized throughout the world of baseball, were available for grounding judgments regarding which leagues qualified and which individuals were eligible to join the Hall’s singular honorees. Claims that Josh Gibson and Leon Day, for example, belong in the Hall of Fame rested ultimately on assertions based on their hitting, fielding, and pitching prowess, which are the core performances of baseball. But belated recognition, absent a Wayback Machine, doesn’t alter the past: Gibson was inducted into the Hall twenty-five years after his death and Day six days before his. The point instead is to legitimize the present through gestural absorption of past exclusions.
Setting the historical record straight to recognize the exemplary accomplishments of black ballplayers who had been excluded from the Major Leagues by segregation is certainly defensible, even laudable. The Hall of Fame’s explicit purpose is to honor those whose history of performance qualifies them as greats in the sport. But it is worth noting that by the 1980s and 1990s, some fans, aficionados, and wags had begun suggesting that perhaps the statistics of white players whose careers ended before 1947 should be affixed with asterisks (and real baseball fans know the talismanic power of the asterisk) because they had been shielded artificially from facing the toughest competition.7 Bringing the Negro Leagues into the Majors resolved that issue as well. In addition to giving the black players what feels like their due, it also avoids besmirching the standing of Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, or “Big Train” Johnson. But, what of areas of life that, unlike baseball, do not unfold along clearly delimited criteria? What does “greatness” or “contribution” mean? Or “place” among what arrangements?
Beyond its intellectual limitations, the reclamation and celebration narrative is yet more problematic as it mimes a politics. It is Orwellian in reinventing the past with formulations and outcomes more agreeable to presentist sensibilities. It feigns to correct the past’s injustices partly by narrowing what we understand them to have been in a way that fits the moral compass of contemporary neoliberalism. In 2018 The New York Times introduced a feature called “the Overlooked,” which it described as “obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times,” that is, people whose otherwise considerable lives were not recognized because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics then, but no longer, suppressed as non-normative. As I indicate above, Rustin invents the gay affair to underscore how difficult it was to be a black gay man in 1963 but also by definition how much better it is to be one now. It unquestionably is, in many ways, for many gay people. Yet in making Rustin’s sexual orientation the film’s centerpiece, to the extent of never once discussing the specific objectives of the 1963 March and having Tom Kahn’s character trivialize disagreements about direction in the movement (“SNCC, CORE, the NAACP kids, we’re all fighting over agendas and slogans and songs”), “reclaiming” Rustin is also celebrating triumph of a thin neoliberal conception of social justice that is fundamentally at odds with the social-democratic vision Rustin actually pursued.
The anachronistic appropriation of the discourse of “respectability politics” that pops up in the film’s bar chat does point to a presentist material foundation for the place and contribution narrative, perhaps a reason it seems so powerful symbolically while devoid of specific content. Those who inveigh against the injustice of respectability politics commonly adduce the case of Claudette Colvin, the fifteen-year-old who was originally considered a possible test case for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Organizers dropped her from consideration when they learned that she was pregnant and unwed and eventually replaced her with Rosa Parks. Efforts to reclaim and celebrate Colvin give away the crude and presentist class character of this politics of reclamation and celebration: its model is an awards competition. The claim that Colvin was wronged by having been deprived of the opportunity to realize her (rightful?) place in history is equivalent to an assertion that boycott leadership took away her winning lottery ticket. It turns the relation between participating in the movement and recognition for having done so on its head, as though the point of participation were gaining the recognition. That is, it reads today’s career path to becoming a freelance Racial Voice back into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In a familiar move, those who represent Colvin as the victim of respectability politics flail around for convincing justifications for grievance on her behalf—she was too dark-skinned, not sufficiently attractive by white standards, not well enough connected—none of which, even if true, had prevented her from being considered in the first place. The direct explanation for Colvin’s replacement, that the movement’s opponents were primed to attack the character of its prominent participants in order to discredit it without challenging the justice of its demands and that Colvin’s condition would have made her an unnecessary liability, is unpersuasive to those who insist she was wronged. For them, instrumental political arguments do not register because, in their purview, the goal of the civil rights movement was not altering legislation or policy but attaining recognition for exemplary black people.8 In this sense search for “contributions” not only substitutes role-modeling and uplift ideology for a redistributive politics (Rustin wins recognition, not a full employment economy); it also holds out the neoliberal promise for commoditizing the self, the activist/role model as entrepreneur. No wonder “activist” is now a standard item on professors’ and entertainers’ bios.
This brings me to the issue of Rustin’s shift rightward. I’ve been asked several times, mainly from members of my age cohort, why I don’t discuss it. The main reason I haven’t derives from my aversion to the “place” and “contributions” narrative. Assessing Rustin’s political shifts and what drove them is a proper concern for those interested in Rustin’s life or political biography; several useful and informative studies are available to aid pursuit of such interests, none better than John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. My interest in the sweep of Rustin’s life is more ancillary or passing curiosity than principal focus. My concern has never been to find or vindicate Rustin’s place in history. He belongs to his history; we belong to ours. Nor has it been to enter a summary moral judgment about him or to distill lessons we can take from him, positive or negative.
My interest in Rustin centers on his specific interventions at a crucial point in debates in the mid-1960s over how to build out from the civil rights movement’s great legislative victories. The full import of those debates would become clear only decades after the fact, and in ways that don’t line up ideologically as many radicals believed they did at the time. In retrospect, those mid-’60s debates, which I have written about often,9 laid out two distinct directions and strategies for a left or progressive politics in the United States, one anchored to a broadly social-democratic vision and an effort to construct a mass black-labor-liberal-left politics and the other a performatively radical black ethnic pluralism, embellished with anti-colonial, Third Worldist imagery and a rhetoric of “self-determination.” Revisiting that debate is important today because doing so challenges two profound mystifications that undercut development of serious left politics: 1) the erasure of political economy and class from accounts of American political history, especially post-World War II and 2) the bizarre notion that nothing of any significance has changed for black Americans or regarding race in American politics since 1965. From the perspective of challenging those colossal mystifications, Rustin was probably the most astute and incisive participant in those debates.
New Left-inclined radicals at the time saw the cleavage as between, on the one hand, Rustin and other advocates of an essentially conservative racial integrationist politics that would dilute blacks’ power in a Democratic coalition and a revolutionary Third-Worldist sensibility on the other.10 I understand very well how that deeply sedimented conviction regarding the stakes of the mid-1960s debate encourages catechizing me now on my characterization, which presents what we understood to be radical as the right-wing tendency and what we understood as conservative to be the defeated left alternative. I was 17 at the time of the Democratic convention in Atlantic City and was aware of the controversy over seating the MFDP; I was also frustrated that I wasn’t old enough to vote for Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Within two years, the War in Vietnam had escalated to the point where nearly 400,000 troops were deployed, and I was swept up like so many others, especially on college campuses, in the energy of Black Power and Third Worldist politics. Over the years, settled assurance that Rustin was a conservative and that we who opposed him were radicals apparently had become for many tightly woven into a basic sense of self and one’s own fundamental political identity. However, critical reflection on the intervening decades, e.g., the emergence of the Black Power tendency, as Rustin had cautioned early on, into a new black political class that has evolved within neoliberalism and whose reductionist antiracist politics defines its version of a left, should facilitate acknowledging that we were wrong then—even in the categories through which we tried to understand the stakes of the debate. In fairness, it was possible to know how things were going to turn out only after the fact because history, perhaps especially political history, is dynamic and processual.
This points to another problem with Rustin’s conservative shift. SNCC radicals and others in the MFDP camp decided Rustin was a conservative, or anti-radical, because of his role as go-between in Atlantic City, when he just as easily could have been seen as trying to sell a purely tactical compromise. Because some radicals were predisposed to see him as conservative already after Atlantic City, it was that much easier to dismiss his 1965 and 1966 arguments in that way. Then nearly a decade later, when Rustin operated in effect as a pro-Israeli goon in pressuring black public figures to sign his B.A.S.I.C. (Black Americans to Support Israel Committee) statement, that could be seen as consistent with the earlier two moments. But is there any reason to assume a connection between his later actions on behalf of Israeli interests and his earlier arguments for a social-democratic politics or even urging the MFDP to accept the Johnson administration’s compromise? Determining whether that’s the case may be an academically interesting matter but, for my political purposes, is beside the point; the answer’s significance would not justify the effort required to generate it—unless the point were somehow to situate or support judgments about Rustin the individual, which leads back to the logic of reclaiming and celebrating, and displacement of history by human interest or morality play. And even Rustin’s motives for agitating for the B.A.S.I.C. statement were likely complex and connected to his relationships within Social Democrats, USA and how its politics was moving. From this perspective, it’s not clear that expatiating on Rustin’s conservative turn is as as clean or direct as it may seem, and pursuing it wouldn’t tell us much in any case. It might seem straightforward and easy to plot a story of Rustin’s conservative turn teleologically, reading from the B.A.S.I.C. statement backward to the MFDP controversy. However, in the old Mississippi Delta folk wisdom, “seems like ain’t is,” and it’s good in political as well as academic life to recall, and avoid, the seductions of the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy.
Finally, to return to Rustin, the most charitable description of that essentially Bookerite biopic narrative that is now standard is Great POC You Should Know About Who Accomplished Much (i.e., Was Successfully Great) Against All Odds And It’s Uplifting To Know That You Could Be the Same If You Work Hard and Apply Yourself and Pursue Your Dreams Whatever They Might Be Against All Odds; Then the Force of Your Exemplary Character Will Show Through and Things Will Change (the Voting Rights Act Will Pass, You’ll Make the NBA or the Red Carpet, or Be Able to Buy a House on Those Nurses’ Aide Wages—Whatever) and You’ll Be a Success At Least in Your Own Mind.
And that is why this iteration, like the others, is most deeply reactionary.