I asked myself a simple question a few years ago: Did remarkable people have remarkable mentors? It has led me down an incredibly rich rabbit hole of forgotten giants and goose-bump inducing hidden histories. One of my favorite "discoveries" is Martin Luther King’s mentor, the ignored colossus of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin.
A quick scan of Bayard Rustin’s accomplishments on his Wikipedia page beggar’s the reader’s belief. He played a huge part in almost every freedom movement of the 20th century. A summary:
Additionally, he was an eloquent writer, most famously authoring the anonymous pamphlet, “Speak Truth to Power.” Why anonymous? Because he was gay.
The FBI would track him; being affiliated with him would tarnish reputations. And yet, he had such a formidable intellect and incredible organizing skills that many leaders kept him on despite the risk.
He grew up in a Quaker household, and started non-violent protests while still in school. He was supporting himself as a nightclub singer during the Harlem Renaissance (incidentally, he had a remarkable music career as well, and sang with many of the blues and jazz greats of the time) when he became involved with the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s.
Rustin became disillusioned with the party in the early 1940s. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and Stalin sent word to the Communist Party of the United States to shift its focus from civil rights (it had been encouraging the development of a separate nation in the southeastern United States!) to encouraging the US government to enter WWII against Germany. Rustin left the party almost immediately.
Rustin’s Mentor: Nehru
In the late 1940s, right after the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, Rustin went to India and met the leaders of the resistance. He took notes, and brought his ideas back. When he went to Alabama in the 1950s, he saw the charismatic potential of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King saw a great mentor in Bayard Rustin, and forged a strong friendship despite protests from his fellow ministers; the ministers wanted Rustin gone because of his homosexuality. King ignored them, of course, and the rest is history. King learned nonviolence from Rustin and Rustin helped King with logistics.
Even today, in the loonier corners of the internet, where white supremacists seek to discredit Martin Luther King, the first person they bring up is Bayard Rustin. It is a testament to King's courage and intelligence that he was able to ignore the "realists" in his movement and benefit from Bayard Rustin's mentoring.
Rustin vs. Modern “Woke” Movement
Rustin hid himself during his lifetime, but the question remains, why is he still unrecognized? Many of his beliefs, which he claims come from his Quaker upbringing and not his identity as a gay man or as a black man, are a challenge to modern progressives.
In the 1960’s, he criticized many white liberals, describing a “white liberal syndrome,” saying, “Negroes have been used by white Americans for many reasons, but it is only recently that they have been asked to satisfy the masochistic craving of white liberals for flagellation and rejection.”
Even more damning of modern activists were the points he was making during a fiery debate with Malcolm X. He condemns Malcolm X’s movement as making loud, charismatic, but ultimately empty, gestures.
“I am merely pointing out that if you do not have an adequate program, you open yourself to being utilized…”
He points out the nerdy sounding idea of having “a program” multiple times in the debate, while Malcolm X makes strong sloganized rebuttals.
But this bias towards practical, strategic action is what made him so powerful and so essential to all of the achievements of the civil rights movement. We need to heed his message today, and move beyond the sloganized, charismatic, social-media friendly gestures, and develop a program.
Bayard Rustin, true #rebeltoruler.
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