“Since Israel is a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction, those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence.” This statement might have been written by any number of American candidates for political office, Republican or Democrat. But actually, it was uttered 50 years ago by a prominent African American civil rights icon, Bayard Rustin.
Rustin’s public advocacy for Israel was a constant in his career, but it emerged more forcefully in response to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Some of that movement’s leaders embraced the Palestinian cause and declared Israel a pariah state. Rustin, one of the pioneers of the struggle for civil rights, condemned this move and hostility to Jews and Israel, especially as manifested in the Nation of Islam and in the Black Panthers. He met calls for African American separatism with a call for the renewal of the struggle for integration and full equality. Black separatism, he felt, was an expression of despair and disengagement. It was the abandonment of the struggle; not, as claimed, its intensification. And alienating Jewish supporters of the struggle would, in the end, hurt the cause.
Rustin was the grandchild of slaves. His paternal grandfather, Janifer Rustin, migrated in the 1880s from the South to Pennsylvania. He married there, and he and his wife, Julia, came under the influence of the Quakers. Their grandson Bayard was born in 1912. Bible lessons, led by his grandmother, were Bayard’s earliest educational experience. As a child Rustin was taught to respect all religions and to sympathize with the oppressed. “My grandmother,” Rustin recalled in his later years, “was thoroughly convinced that when it came to matters of the liberation of black people, we had much more to learn from the Jewish experience than we had to learn out of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Rustin’s pacifism sprang from his upbringing, and in his early 20s, he declared himself a Quaker. At Wilberforce University, the first of the historically Black colleges, Bayard focused on the study of classical music. He proved to be a talented singer, an avocation he returned to many times in his life. He used his musical talents in political struggles and sang at many meetings and marches. And over his lifetime, he recorded three albums of African American songs. In 1937 Rustin moved to New York City, where he took an apartment in Harlem.
Attracted to the U.S. Communist Party’s support for racial justice, Rustin joined the Young Communist League (YCL) at City College in 1937. The Hitler-Stalin Pact shocked him, as it did many on the left, and he resigned from the YCL, having concluded that “the Communists concern was not with black masses or working people, but with the global objectives of the Soviet Union.” From then until his death in 1987 he remained a staunch anti-communist. But unlike many former communists, Rustin did not turn to the political right. He remained a committed socialist and a man of the left.
When the U.S. entered the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rustin and his colleagues in the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation argued that there was no “just war”; all war was wrong. They refused to register for the draft. Though he had the option of declaring himself a conscientious objector (based on his Quaker affiliations), Rustin chose to stand trial and risk going to prison. His “stand on conscience” to use the Quaker idiom, was based on his understanding that taking the easy way out would betray his principles. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison–of which he served a full 20 months in 1944-45. This was the first, and the longest, of the many jail sentences he served throughout his life.
In 1948 Rustin traveled to India on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee. In India he met with many of Gandhi’s followers. He spent seven weeks in India traveling widely. On his return to the States, Rustin met with civil rights leaders and called for the use of satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, in the Black struggle for equality. It was Rustin who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. to adopt Gandhian strategies. On Rustin’s urging, King himself subsequently traveled to India and met with Gandhi’s followers.
On the way to India, Rustin and the other members of his American Friends Service Committee delegation spent six weeks in Europe. In France they visited Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, the village in which the townspeople, led by a Protestant minister, saved thousands of Jewish children by hiding them from the Nazis and smuggling them into Switzerland. This example of moral courage stayed with Rustin throughout his lifetime of struggles.
When organizing the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. sought advice from Bayard Rustin. Rustin was 43 years old at the time; King was 25. But Rustin’s usefulness to the Civil Rights Movement was limited, challenged by his increasing notoriety. His communist past, his prison sentence, and his homosexual orientation, which he neither hid nor denied, brought Rustin to the attention of the FBI. In his FBI file, Rustin was described as “a prominent advisor to Martin Luther King and a known sexual pervert.”
When remembered today, Rustin is known for his greatest accomplishment, the organization of the August 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. As the other speakers at the rally were reluctant to follow King at the rostrum, Rustin wisely placed King last. Over 200,000 people attended the march. Rustin wrote that there was “electricity in the air. Everyone who was there knew that the event was a landmark.”
With the rise of what he condemned as Black separatism Rustin was alienated from many activists in the Civil Rights Movement, the most radical of whom dubbed him an Uncle Tom. Disillusioned with the direction of the movement, Rustin turned his attention to international affairs and to forging links between American socialists and socialists in Europe and the developing world.
It was in that context that he first visited Israel, which in the 1960s and ’70s, had many links to international socialist groups. Rustin traveled to Israel twice, in 1969 and in 1982. That first visit was to a conference at Hebrew University on technology and human development. He toured the country and met Prime Minister Golda Meir. As Rustin biographer Jervis Anderson noted, “Of the many Israeli leaders Rustin met, Golda Meir captivated him most. She likewise was enchanted by him. ... If he wasn’t already a Zionist before their first meeting, then he surely must have become one during the long and animated political discussions they held in her office.” Out of that visit came many of Rustin’s pro-Israeli declarations, including a statement on “American Blacks and Israel” and a 1975 speech condemning the U.N. resolution on “Zionism as Racism.” Rustin spoke at a rally in New York City condemning that resolution. Over 100,000 people heard Rustin’s rousing speech.
In 1979 Rustin wrote a New York Times op-ed piece titled “To Blacks: Condemn P.L.O. Terrorism.” The background to the piece was Andrew Young’s resignation from the office of the U.S. delegate to the U.N. after he met with representatives of the PLO. Rustin speculated that among the reasons that “some black people have suddenly embraced the P.L.O. ... is a way of striking back against Israel and the American Jewish community for their supposed involvement in engineering Mr. Young’s ouster.”
Contrasting the Civil Rights Movement’s commitment to nonviolence to the PLO’s espousal of “violence and hatred,” Rustin called on blacks to follow “central figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, who never once in the long history of the civil rights struggles countenanced violence or terrorism.” According to Rustin, “The P.L.O., however, espouses the opposites of all these principles. ... Considering this record, I fear that individuals who see similarities between our struggle and the terror campaign of the P.L.O. are ignoring or twisting the facts.”
Rustin faced criticism that his support of Israel was primarily a strategic move—a wish to maintain Jewish political and financial support of civil rights organizations—but his Zionism may have had deeper roots. His grandmother’s exhortation that the Jewish experience could serve as a template of the Black experience was foundational. Rustin told an interviewer for the Columbia University Center for Oral History that “the most blatant expressions of hatred growing up were directed against Jews.”
Another seldom-remarked-upon influence on Rustin’s support for Zionism was his lifelong friendship with fellow pacifist Igal Roodenko. In the late 1940s, Roodenko and Rustin were among a dozen activists who staged the first attempts to desegregate buses in the South. Together with their colleagues, they were arrested and spent weeks in a North Carolina jail.
Roodenko was born in New York City to parents who lived in Palestine before the First World War and were exiled by the Turkish authorities. Igal’s Hebrew name and his Zionist upbringing were part of his complex political orientation. Though a lifelong activist and pacifist, Roodenko had a critical, but affirming, understanding of Zionism, and one could speculate that this stance influenced Rustin.
David McReynolds, elder statesman of American pacifism, told an interviewer in 2006 that Rustin’s support of Israel, which McReynolds criticized, stemmed from a number of factors: “He was always sympathetic to Jews in part because his own political analysis was that the only chance the left had was through coalitions, and in part because I think that, like anyone who had lived through the period of the Holocaust, he was affected by it.”
Rustin’s biographer John D’Emilio concluded his inspiring study of Rustin with this story: In the Reagan years many on the political left were dismayed by the country’s shift to the right. A young activist asked Rustin how he kept from being discouraged. Rustin answered: “I have learned a very significant message from the Jewish prophets. They taught that God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue.” What is required, Rustin said, “is that we not stop trying.”
Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.