Thoughts About "Down The Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin"

I'd like to share with you a perspective-changing experience I had a few weeks ago. This experience was so deep and profound that I doubt my ability to share it fully and in an understandable, linear fashion.

The catalyst for this change was the book "Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin". Before reading this book, I had a very simple, trite understanding of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. I thought the Civil Rights Movement started with Rosa Parks sitting down in the front of the bus, which was illegal because of Jim Crow laws. And then, there were some peaceful protests, Brown vs. the Board of Education and desegregation, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot of speeches and was assassinated, and that was the end of the Civil Rights Movement, which was, of course, mostly successful.

This impression of the Civil Rights Movement was challenged on the first page of "Down the Line", where I read this:

"Recently I was planning to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.

'Hey, you. You're supposed to sit in the back seat.'

'Why?'

'Because that's the law. Niggers ride in the back.'

I said, 'My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.'"

This was written in 1942, before Rosa Parks. "If what I thought I knew about Rosa Parks was wrong—that she wasn't the first to sit in the front of the bus—what else am I wrong about?"

The answer: pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Civil Rights Movement was, if not wrong, misleading and over-simplified. And this understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is, frankly, dangerous. If I believe that progress comes in big, gigantic steps over a fairly brief period of time, I'm more likely to give up when the progress I'm fighting for doesn't happen that quickly. And if most Americans my age have this same understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, we'll give up too quickly when our ideals don't come to fruition fast enough, when the big, giant steps don't seem to be happening. What I learned most from Rustin's description of the Civil Rights Movement was that it was not a movement of large steps, but a movement of small moments that all merged together to create change. This lesson is particularly important for those of us now engaged in GLBTQ rights, or fighting poverty, or any number of modern rights movements: to stay optimistic because we are making those small steps and not give up because the steps are too small and take too much time.

So much of what Bayard Rustin had to say still holds true today; for example:

"They [what he calls "New York Times moderates"] apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty."

That was written in 1964. And reading this, knowing where we are today—that trillions of dollars have been spent on war in the last 8 years alone, that at least half of our government spending is "defense" spending, Katrina and the destruction of Section 8 housing that is not likely to be rebuilt—it filled me with such a sense of sadness that what he said over 40 years ago is not only still true today, but even more true today than it was when he wrote it.

On the other hand, reading Bayard Rustin's writings showed me how far we have come as a country. I grew up in Massachusetts. I'm only 26 years old. I had no conceptual understanding of what the Jim Crow laws actually meant. I knew they had existed; I had read Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" in high school; but none of it was real for me. It was as fantastic as the fantasy books I read. And Rustin's descriptions of events, protests, being in jail... I became aware of how much progress has been made... and how meaningful it was to have Obama be elected as President when one of the excuses given to prevent blacks from voting had been "You don't want Martin Luther King to become our President, do you?" (Yes, we do.)

Rustin makes the strong claim that the civil rights movement needed to change from a political movement to an economic movement; that it wasn't enough to just make it legal for blacks to go to school with whites, etc., but that unless economic opportunities were made equally available, the desegregation law was tepid as an instrument of change. What did it matter if you were allowed to sit in the front of the bus if your state was cutting mass transportation funding or you couldn't afford the busfare? What did it matter if schools were desegregated if the inner city schools were filled with inner city residents, who were mostly black?

And reading through his eloquent, powerful arguments for economic change (he proposed a guarenteed living wage for every able-bodied man and woman who wanted to work, universal health care, increased funding of mass transportation, liveable public housing and enough of it, etc.) made me sad to know that we still don't have those things today, that however far we've come, we haven't come that far yet.

Quakers in particular might find the next two quotes interesting:

"The peace movement finds itself in a peculiar position. On the one hand, it would like to protect the integrity of its activities and objectives; on the other, it is somewhat unhappy over the fact that the civil rights movement does not openly ally itself with peace efforts...

...thousands of Negroes, in order to rehabilitate themselves, are forced to take a stand beyond morality and exploit the opportunities presented to them by their country's military involvement. I myself can afford the luxury of drawing those moral lines, but it is more difficult to suggest to people who are hungry, jobless, or living in slums that they turn their backs on opportunities that promise them a measure of economic betterment.

If this attitude on the part of thousands of Negroes horrifies the peace movement, then 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." (written in 1967)

And:

"Lower class does not mean working class; the distinction is often overlooked in a middle-class culture that tends to lump the two together.

The distinction is important. The working class is employed. It has a relation to the production of goods and services; much of it is organized in unions. It enjoys a measure of cohesion, discipline, and stability lacking in the lower class. The latter is unemployed or marginally employed. It is relatively unorganized, incohesive, unstable. It contains the petty criminal and antisocial elements. Above all, unlike the working class, it lacks the sense of a stake in society." (also written in 1967)

Speaking of Quakers, Rustin was one, and influences of his faith (our Testimonies) can be found in all of his writings and his actions. He didn't talk about God much or mention Quakerism often, but his actions were a result of his Quaker faith. He had faith AND practice, and he wrote an enormous amount.

Why do Quakers not claim Rustin enthusiastically and vocally as one of our own? In my Meeting, it's George Fox, John Woolman, and Rufus Jones that get talked about. Why don't we talk about Rustin more? To be fair, I first read about Rustin in a Friends Journal a few years ago. I'm sure I'm not the first Quaker to read Bayard Rustin. But I want to encourage more Quakers to read his writings.

Writing this has been more difficult for me than I expected. It almost felt like I wanted to write two different posts: one about how reading Rustin affected me, and one about how I wish Quakers would make a bigger deal out of Rustin. I think I've said enough about both in this post, but I can't seem to weave the two of them together. And I know this post is a little disjointed.

But maybe that's the point: that disjointed doesn't mean unconnected. Each of those little moments Rustin describes, each time a Quaker speaks about our prejudices and the limits of our perspectives, each time one of us speaks up when being silent would smother who we are, we move forward.

© Tatiana Hamboyan Harrison