Protest or Politics?
To the Editor:
. . . Since the Harlem riots of 1964 and the Democratic National Convention at Atlantic City, Bayard Rustin has shown himself to be more and more out of step with the masses of people he purports to understand and lead. It almost seems that he is now an official civil-rights ambassador for the Johnson administration. In his last two articles for COMMENTARY [“From Protest to Politics,” February; “Johnson So Far—II: Civil Rights,” June] the second of which was co-authored with Tom Kahn, Mr. Rustin calls for a new coalition, excluding business, to replace the now dismantled Roosevelt coalition of labor, minority groups, and liberal forces. This repeated call for a new coalition reflects the fact that while Mr. Rustin may not have lost the power to tell the truth, he may, more tragically, have lost the power to recognize truth. . . .
Mr. Rustin talks of consolidating the gains of the Negro revolt. What gains? Civil-rights laws without enforcement power and pious rhetoric. What gains—when racial segregation in housing is increasing North as well as South? What gains—when de facto school segregation is not even discussed in most Northern communities, when the Negro unemployment rate is on the increase, when police brutality without citizen review is a fact, when ghetto exploitation is a rule—not an exception? While Mr. Rustin talks of random acts of brutality, the actual figures show that 35 professional civil righters have been killed since 1960 and only one self-confessed white person has been convicted of manslaughter. . . . How can gains be accomplished in a framework of profitable, planned social chaos?
Maybe the “gains” Mr. Rustin refers to are the fact that the Negro middle class, those most acrobatic of souls, have achieved the right to go to a restaurant, or buy a hamburger, or even vote. The right to vote is somewhat tarnished perhaps, because the Negro has merely won the right to choose between a party that doesn’t want him or one which can’t stand him.
The truth that Mr. Rustin cannot face is the fact that the so-called Negro revolt or reform hasn’t achieved a damn thing. It has barely scratched the surface . . . but has not gotten to the heart of the question—that question is: can a stagnating economic and political system, eroded by racism, let the Negro live as a free man?
Mr. Rustin feels that it is significant that Johnson has proclaimed—“We Shall Overcome.” Who and what does the Johnson administration plan to overcome? How can the Johnson administration overcome when American society lacks the institutional means, the intellectual insight, and the constitutional guts to achieve the goals necessary to overcome social problems? In the U.S. as in the rest of the world, Uncle Sam is standing still, bragging about his present good life and fortune. . . .
In summary I must ask, whatever happened to Bayard Rustin, brilliant tactician of the civil-rights movement? . . .
C. E. Wilson
New York City
Mr. Rustin writes:
Mr. Wilson apparently belongs to that school of thought, now reviving, which believes that those who disagree with them are agents of the “Establishment.” I am neither an official nor an unofficial “civil-rights ambassador for the Johnson administration.”
Nor do I need Mr. Wilson to tell me about housing and school segregation, increasing Negro unemployment, and the rest. My February COMMENTARY article emphasized “the rise of de facto segregation in our most fundamental socioeconomic institutions,” as Mr. Wilson would remember had he troubled himself to read one of the articles he attacks.
His real gripe is that, having pointed to the radical nature of the obstacles to Negro freedom, I do not lose myself in the apocalyptic visions of LeRoi Jones or in pseudo-radical ravings about the hopelessness of the situation, the irremediable corruption of white society, etc.
Far from refuting my argument, Mr. Wilson is a perfect example of what I called the “no-win” tendency in the civil-rights movement. He is convinced that the society is too corrupt and deficient, intellectually, institutionally, and constitutionally, to permit racial equality. So what do we do, Mr. Wilson? Your quarrel is not with me or the strategy of coalition. Your fight is with the Freedom Riders, with SNCC, CORE, and the whole civil-rights movement—with everyone who struggles hopefully and is not content with private rhetorical catharsis.
So the Negro revolt “hasn’t achieved a damn thing”? Tell that, why don’t you, to the friends and relatives of the 35 who have given their lives to that hopeless and wasted cause!