U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bayard Rustin, Black Power, and Social Democracy

“With undisguised satisfaction, the American press is rushing to compose the epitaph for Black Studies programs on college and university campuses. In recent months, virtually every major newspaper and news magazine in the country has published a report on the failing concept, elevating to approving prophetship the outspoken opponents of the programs, men like Bayard Rustin, Martin Kilson, and Thomas Sowell.” So began an essay in the May 1974 issue of Black World concerning the direction of still-young Black Studies programs across the nation. Rustin’s own critique of Black Studies, and Black Power more broadly, made him an important target for Black Nationalists and their allies in the 1960s and 1970s. My essay here will deal with Rustin’s broader critique of Black Power as it arose in the 1960s. But his critique of such programs was an important part of Rustin’s own attempts to forge a genuine social democratic movement during that same era—and it is a legacy that intellectual historians and modern-day activists alike should reckon with.[1]

Rustin’s qualms about the Black Power Movement are critical to understanding how he attempted to craft a broad-based social democratic movement. While his “From Protest to Politics” essay, which ran in Commentary in 1965 is well-known for Rustin’s prescription for what the movement should do next, the following year’s “’Black Power’ and Coalition Politics” is equally important in showing how Rustin found the nascent Black Power movement more of a hindrance than a help to the broader Civil Rights coalition. Rustin saw the Black Power Movement’s rhetoric as “positively harmful” and threatened to unleash the “growth of anti-Negro forces.”[2]

This early critique of Black Power by Rustin echoed some of the other arguments levied against it by other civil rights leaders. Rustin’s concern, above all, was with how Black Power threatened to recreate the very conditions its adherents claimed to rebel against. Instead, Rustin offered his idea of what would help African Americans the most: a “liberal-labor-civil rights coalition which would work to make the Democratic Party truly responsive to the aspirations of the poor” and could eventually win the battle over the proposed “Freedom Budget” set forth by Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights supporters of social democracy. Instead, lamented Rustin, all Black Power advocates seemed to be pushing for was “the creation of a new black establishment.” (emphasis his) This criticism Rustin crafted was his way of dismissing how Black Power advocates argued for a unified Black politics before entering any coalition. This was not possible, retorted Rustin—the power of coalition politics lied in each part of the coalition leaning on each other for support and strength.[3]

Some African American intellectuals applauded Rustin’s criticism of Black Power, and his turn towards a more traditional idea of coalition politics. As Cedric Johnson observed in his book Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, Harold Cruse praised Rustin’s concerns about the continued use of radical, mass mobilization protest politics: “On matters of political strategy, Rustin and Cruse represented moderate nodes within the wider constellation of black political thinking during the middle to late sixties.” This shows just how fractured African American intellectual and political debate had become during the 1960s—a period where a variety of strategies presented themselves as viable options during the Civil Rights era and beyond.[4]

Wrestling with African American conceptions of social democracy means confronting how intellectuals combined a critique of white supremacy with diagnoses of capitalism. Part of Rustin’s problem, of course, became his complicated (and often condemned) responses to American foreign policy problems. I have written about that before for the blog, but my next entry will attempt to reconcile African American conceptions of social democracy with a more forceful critique of American foreign policy in the 1980s, under the umbrella of Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition.”

[1] “Perspectives: On Black Studies and the Critics,” Black World, May 1974, p. 49. https://books.google.com/books?id=qjkDAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=bayard+rustin+%2B+negro+digest&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwih19-a063jAhWTHM0KHZKMB7gQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=bayard%20rustin%20%2B%20negro%20digest&f=false

[2] Bayard Rustin, “’Black Power’ and Coalition Politics,” Commentary, September 1966, https://www.crmvet.org/info/6609_rustin_blkpwr.pdf.

[3] Bayard Rustin, “’Black Power’ and Coalition Politics,” Commentary, September 1966, https://www.crmvet.org/info/6609_rustin_blkpwr.pdf.

[4] Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 38.

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