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Political Action’s Opportunities and Dangers: Some Lessons from Bayard Rustin

By John Whitehead


Social movements learn from one another: strategies and tactics that work on behalf of one cause may also work for another. Learning from other activists requires discernment, though: times and circumstances differ, so what worked for one movement at one historical point may require adaptation and selectivity to be effective for a different movement. The consistent life ethic (CLE) movement is no exception to these principles. Being dedicated to connecting several distinct causes—such as the pro-life and peace causes—CLE activists should be especially attentive to how other movements connected or failed to connect issues.

A product of another social movement that can guide CLE activists is the famous essay “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” written by Bayard Rustin for Commentary magazine in February 1965. Rustin, a longtime peace and civil rights activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, proposed the next steps black Americans should take in pursuing equality. Up to that point, the civil rights movement had focused on defeating the very explicitly racist system of discrimination and segregation found in certain American states, especially in the south. This phase of civil rights activism, which included protests and civil disobedience aimed at segregated restaurants, busing, and other racist institutions, had culminated in the passage of the previous year’s federal Civil Rights Act that banned racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment. Now, Rustin argued, black Americans had to adopt a different focus and strategy.

The pressing concern now was the subtler but no less devastating evil of poverty and lack of jobs and economic opportunity—which affected blacks not merely in southern states but nationwide. Civil rights activists now had to focus on economic justice. Using the racial terminology of the time,

Rustin wrote:

"The Negro struggle has hardly run its course…But I fail to see how the movement can be victorious in the absence of radical programs for full employment, the abolition of slums, the reconstruction of our educational system, new definitions of work and leisure. Adding up the cost of such programs, we can only conclude that we are talking about a refashioning of our political economy. It has been estimated, for example, that the price of replacing New York City's slums with public housing would be $17 billion. Again, a multi-billion dollar federal public-works program, dwarfing the currently proposed $2 billion program, is required to reabsorb unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the labor market—and this must be done if Negro workers in these categories are to be employed."

Such public policies to address economic injustice could not be achieved through civil disobedience and direct action, Rustin argued. Achieving these goals required working through the American political system, which in turn required black Americans to form a political coalition with other groups: “trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.” Moreover, forming this coalition entailed a commitment to the major political party currently most compatible with all these groups: the Democratic Party. Rustin expressed hopes that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, recently re-elected in a landslide with significant black support, would seize the opportunity to “set fundamental changes in motion.”

He concluded:

"We are challenged now to broaden our social vision, to develop functional programs with concrete objectives. We need to propose alternatives to technological unemployment, urban decay, and the rest. We need to be calling for public works and training, for national economic planning, for federal aid to education, for attractive public housing—all this on a sufficiently massive scale to make a difference…We cannot claim to have answers to all the complex problems of modern society. That is too much to ask of a movement still battling barbarism in Mississippi. But we can agitate the right questions by probing at the contradictions which still stand in the way of the “Great Society.” The questions having been asked, motion must begin in the larger society, for there is a limit to what Negroes can do alone."

Many aspects of Rustin’s argument had merit. A significant, comprehensive response to poverty required—and still does require—enacting laws and public policies at the national, if not international, level. Direct action in poor communities, whether charitable and philanthropic work or investing in private businesses, is valuable but insufficient unless the larger political and hence economic context is changed. Changing that political context requires working within the political system.

Rustin’s point about coalition building is similarly sound. Political action requires alliances, especially if a group is a numerical minority, as black Americans are. Forming a relationship, even if only a temporary one, with groups that share at least one of your goals is crucial.

Further, despite the significant differences between the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the CLE movement today, Rustin’s insights have relevance for CLE activists. Defending life against an array of contemporary threats, from abortion to war to the death penalty to euthanasia, depends to some degree on laws and public policies—which in turn depend on political action. Moreover, while CLE activists as such are not subjected to massive oppression and discrimination as black Americans are, they are nevertheless a numerical minority—probably a far tinier minority than the 12 percent of the population black Americans make up. Effective political action therefore requires CLE activists to ally themselves, at least sometimes, with groups who are not CLE but share one or more of our goals.

CLE activists should also take to heart Rustin’s emphasis on addressing poverty. Whether or not poverty and other evils that do not involve direct killing of human beings should be considered part of the CLE is a much-debated question. For my part, I admit to having reservations about treating poverty as a “life issue” in the same way as, say, the death penalty or war are. Nevertheless, even if some CLE activists do not view poverty as a core CLE issue, I think effective CLE advocacy requires addressing poverty for two reasons.

First, poverty is intertwined with direct killing in many ways: women who have abortions are disproportionately poor, as are people on death row (people of color are also overrepresented among these groups, pointing to how racism is intertwined with life issues); inadequate access to healthcare and other social support can contribute to suicide (assisted or otherwise) among the elderly, ill, or disabled; the poor are least able to escape or protect themselves from war’s ravages. Moreover, direct killing can worsen the poor’s situation: abortion-related trauma can make it harder for women to escape from poverty; money spent on weapons means less money spent on social services or left in taxpayers’ wallets. Those who wish to stop direct killing need to grapple with these issues.

Second, for most people, the bottom line matters. Political action that ignores people’s concerns and fears for their own material well-being is not going to have much appeal beyond an elite or unusually committed few. CLE activists are particularly at risk here, as so much of our work is on behalf of groups—unborn children, people in foreign countries, death row prisoners—who have little or no ability to act on their own behalf politically. We have to persuade others to act on behalf of these vulnerable groups, and that means taking into account those other people’s interests. A CLE political program should include, if only for pragmatic reasons, an economic justice element.

Rustin made a similar point elsewhere, observing that black Americans face challenges “so vast as to allow them very little time or energy to focus on international crises,” and commented that “perhaps the peace movement might well conclude that it must give a large part of its energy to the struggle to secure the social and economic uplift of the Negro community.”

Rustin’s analysis is instructive for CLE activists in all the ways I have mentioned. One significant aspect of his proposed civil rights strategy is deeply flawed, however, and CLE activists would do well to avoid it in their own work: a commitment to support a particular political party.