What Bayard Rustin Could Teach Democrats Today
The Obama Netflix biopic tells only part of the story.
I was doubly excited to see the new biopic Rustin released on Netflix ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. The film’s subject is Bayard Rustin, the brilliant advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who planned the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Standing at the intersection of the two great forces that advanced American democracy in the twentieth century—the civil rights and the labor movements—Rustin is a true American hero. I was also delighted that former president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, were producers of the film, because I thought they might work with the director to recount Rustin’s life in a way that could help revive the Democratic Party.
Rustin was a champion of what Michael Lind has called “solidarity liberalism,” which envisions a multiracial coalition of working people who together can bring about positive social change. That’s opposed to the dominant progressive vision today: “charity liberalism,” a coalition of voters of color and upper-middle class, highly-educated white liberals (who can sometimes be unreliable allies). As a law student in the early 1990s, Barack Obama had been intrigued by Rustin’s approach, and he coauthored a book manuscript with a fellow law student, which, as historian Timothy Shrenk wrote, “updated Bayard Rustin for the age of Ronald Reagan.”
But Rustin’s director, George C. Wolfe, takes his narrative in a very different direction. The film, as Obama himself might say, is “likeable enough.” Actor Colman Domingo gives a powerful performance showing the tremendous courage of Rustin, a gay man fighting for his dignity in an era when even civil rights leaders—like wider American society—were deeply homophobic. We witness Rustin’s profound disappointment and hurt when King separates himself from Rustin because his homosexuality was seen as a liability. We later see the triumph when King publicly defends Rustin on the eve of the March on Washington. The movie also does a good job of underlining how Rustin taught King about the importance of nonviolence and forging a coalition with organized labor. Domingo does a marvelous job of embodying the way in which Rustin embraced life with enormous enthusiasm despite the terrible obstacles placed in his way.
The choice to end Rustin’s story with King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march, however, prevents viewers from learning anything about Rustin’s later life—including his courageous efforts to save Democrats and the civil rights movement from abandoning universal social mobility programs in favor of race-based policies that helped sever the coalition of black and blue-collar and poor whites that Rustin and King championed.
After the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the nation and the civil rights movement found itself at a critical crossroads as to how to address the nation’s terrible legacy of past racial discrimination. Rustin and King knew something more had to be done. After centuries of racial injustice, America couldn’t just commit itself to outlawing prospective discrimination and call it a day. In an important 1965 article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics,” Rustin argued that while passage of civil rights laws had destroyed “the legal foundations of racism,” it was critical to address the economic legacy of racial oppression.
This second phase of the civil rights movement, Rustin argued, was going to be much more expensive, and therefore required additional allies. With black people constituting just one in ten Americans, it was necessary to work with the type of partners who had formed the March on Washington coalition of “Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.”
While some advocated race-specific measures, Rustin would later note that this path represented a terrible mistake. “There can be no such thing as an exclusive Negro economic program, for that would counterpose the interests of a little more than ten percent of the society to those of the overwhelming majority.”
While the Democratic Party would increasingly embrace racial preferences in contracting, employment, and college admissions as the best remedy, Rustin strongly disagreed whenever the issue arose. One critical moment came in 1968, when a group of wealthy white liberals, including New York City Mayor John Lindsay and Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy, joined up with Black Power activists such as Stokely Carmichael to push the idea of “community control” in public schools. The city created a new local black-run school district in the low-income Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. When the local board voted to summarily fire 18 white educators (and one black teacher who was mistakenly included on the list), liberals were split. Some were sympathetic to black activists, who wanted great control over schools, while others, committed to labor rights and universal policies of nondiscrimination, knew that it was wrong to arbitrarily dismiss unionized workers even if for an otherwise laudatory cause.
Rustin joined the legendary black union leader, A. Philip Randolph, and socialist writer Michael Harrington to support the United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker in a long strike to protest the teachers’ terminations. As Rustin and Randolph argued: “It is the right of every worker not to be transferred or fired at the whim of his employer…These are rights that black workers have struggled and sacrificed to win for generations.” Rustin took enormous criticism for his stance within parts of the black community.
But Rustin stayed firm. When the issue of racial preferences came before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1974 DeFunis v. Odegaard case, Rustin wrote in opposition to such programs in higher education and employment: “[T]o transform the demand for Negro rights into a call for the displacement of whites would inevitably elicit instantaneous and widespread resistance from a society otherwise disposed to view the civil-rights agenda favorably.” He argued, “weakening the merit principle and legitimate standards does no benefit to society, least of all minorities.” Rustin knew that lower-middle class whites were a swing vote in America, and that “the question is not whether this group is conservative or liberal, for it is both, and how it acts will depend upon the way issues are defined.” Racial preferences encouraged white working-class voters to vote their race, not their class, which is precisely what conservatives wanted.
Even as the Democrats and civil rights movement embraced racial preferences and a top-down coalition ever more firmly, Rustin maintained his position until the very end of his life. Just months before his death in 1987, he gave a speech at Harvard University honoring King’s birthday in which he explained: “Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash.” By contrast, he said, “[S]pecial treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit.”
Rustin also noted in the speech that the focus on race as a proxy for disadvantage had a terrible downside: it helped foster a new form of racism based not on biology but on “observed sociological data.” As he wrote:
The new racist equates the pathology of the poor with race, ignoring the fact that family dissolution, teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, alcohol and drug abuse, street crime, and idleness are universal problems of the poor. They exist wherever there is economic dislocation…among the white jobless of Liverpool as well as among unemployed blacks in New York.
In the early 1990s, Barack Obama seemed to agree with Rustin. In his law school book manuscript, Obama and his classmate Robert Fisher observed, “If it has been working-class whites who have been most vociferous in their opposition to affirmative action, this at least in part arises out of an accurate assessment [that] they are the most likely to lose in any redistributionist game.” Obama and Fisher called for universal economic policies that would “use class as a proxy for race.” This was the most politically sustainable path, they contended, because “we cannot realistically expect white America to make special concessions toward blacks over the long haul.”
Fast forward a decade and a half, and shades of Rustin’s class-based approach to affirmative action resurfaced in Obama’s thinking. In the presidential campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Obama said he thought his own privileged daughters did not deserve a racial preference and that poor white students do. Obama told a convention of minority journalists, “[W]e have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.”
When I subsequently approached an Obama staffer about following through on this concept, however, she told me that given interest group politics, Obama could only act if the courts forced him to.
As James Kirchick has noted, the Rustin film is right to celebrate its subject’s perseverance in the face of enormous hostility as a gay black man. But ultimately, Rustin should be celebrated for his ideas—not merely his identity. “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black,” he wrote. “Rather it is rooted, fundamentally, in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. Adhering to those values has meant making a stand against injustice, to the best of my ability, whenever and wherever it occurs.”
For the young audience watching Rustin, the film’s message is flattering and comforting rather that challenging. Sixty years after the March on Washington, young people today know that racism and homophobia are wrong, and the film reassures them of their moral superiority over previous generations—as in many ways they surely are. But as to Rustin’s great fight against unfairness rooted in economic inequality, we have moved backwards as a society since the 1960s.
While viewers of Rustin will come to know his tremendous courage in fighting racism and homophobia, they won’t have a chance to realize that Rustin’s bravery ran even deeper.
He paid a terrible personal price for championing multiracial rather than race-specific social mobility programs. Indeed, Rustin’s New York Times obituary quoted the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Farmer claiming: ''Bayard has no credibility in the black community.”
As Democrats continue to shed working-class voters of all colors, raising fundamental questions about the very purpose of the party, it is important to remember that Bayard Rustin was not just a black gay man who overcame adversity—he was also a brilliant thinker who advocated a morally compelling path forward.
It’s not too late for us to follow his example today.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a nonresident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, is working on a book about affirmative action for PublicAffairs books.
Correction: The article misstated the cause of Rustin’s death in 1987. He died after surgery for a perforated appendix and peritonitis. We regret the error.