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The Prophets: Bayard Rustin

The 1960s civil rights hero, who was sidelined because he was gay, predicted the rise of identity politics and affirmative action—and how they would divide us today.

Welcome back to The Prophets. Last week we introduced our new Saturday series about fascinating people from the past who predicted our current moment, and who make our world more understandable today.

Last week, we showed how Marshall McLuhan foresaw our current internet age, social media, AI, and how we as a society would be rewired by their forces. Today, Coleman Hughes pays tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s adviser Bayard Rustin—also known, appropriately, as the “Lost Prophet.”

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia University during the turbulent years of the Trump administration, there was a racial controversy on campus almost weekly, with some students claiming they experienced white supremacy “every day.” Yet as a black student myself, I detected almost no racism at all. In my search to explain this gulf between rhetoric and reality, I looked back at texts from the civil rights era and found, in the essays and letters of Bayard Rustin—texts I had never encountered on any syllabus—a prescient analysis of everything going on around me. 

Rustin, who was born in 1912 and died in 1987, was a key ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is from his 1965 essay “From Protest to Politics”: 

The decade spanned by the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will undoubtedly be recorded as the period in which the legal foundations of racism in America were destroyed. . . . The term “classical” appears especially apt for this phase of the civil rights movement. But in the few years that have passed since the first flush of sit-ins, several developments have taken place that have complicated matters enormously.

Then he warns that in response to the “magnitude of the obstacles to freedom” most black people still faced, a militant wing of the civil rights movement began pursuing what he characterized as a “no-win” tactic. It consisted of “shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts—by traumatizing them.” The activists, he wrote, were frequently “abetted by white self-flagellants,” who submitted to the abuse despite knowing there was no plan of tangible institutional reform except to “frighten white people into doing the right thing.”

Rustin, spokesman for the Citywide Committee for Integration, at the organization’s headquarters at Siloam Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, New York City, on February 2, 1964. (Photo by Patrick A. Burns via Getty Images)

Rustin had called out this perverse tango decades before books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility normalized the idea of a perpetual white guilt that must be constantly confessed but can never be expiated, and long before an army of DEI consultants turned humiliation and intimidation into an industry. 

In a 1969 essay, Rustin warned that “many liberals have become obsessed with the psychological aspects of the racial problem to the point of neglecting its economic dimensions,” and “the need for blacks to achieve pride and identity and for whites to purge themselves of guilt and racism” was forcing the idea of an interracial “brotherhood” to take a back seat. 

Sound familiar?

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