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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson, 7 August 1963
Bayard Rustin (left), 1963
- Bayard Rustin, "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement," essay, Commentary, February 1965

In "The Ballot or the Bullet" Malcolm X urges African Americans to effect a bloodless revolution in this country through the vote, but in light of his thoroughgoing denunciation of American politics it is unclear how blacks should cast those votes. In "From Protest to Politics" Bayard Rustin also calls for revolution through the ballot, but he offers a more concrete strategy for bringing it about. Rustin salutes the triumphs of what he calls the "classic" period of the civil rights movement. He recognizes, however, that those achievements, essentially the desegregation of public accommodations, did not strike at the heart of the problems afflicting African Americans. By the mid 1960s the civil rights movement was moving into the North. Given that black people there could already vote and public accommodations were at least nominally integrated, the focus of the movement shifted to issues like jobs, education, housing, and police protection. To meet these challenges a new strategy was needed. "[T]hese interrelated problems, by their very nature," he wrote, "are not soluble by private, voluntary efforts but require government action—or politics." For Rustin, a political realist, politics meant compromise and coalition-building.

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin (1912-1987) was raised a Quaker. He began his career as an activist in 1937, when the Young Communist League in New York hired him to organize around civil rights issues. After leaving the League in 1941, he began to work with A. Phillips Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation's leading black trade union. As an organizer he achieved his greatest success with the 1963 March on Washington. (8 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How does Rustin's essay reflect the analysis of the Chicago riots of 1919 offered by Walter White in "Chicago and Its Eight Reasons" (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS)?
  2. What is Rustin's critique of the Black Muslims?
  3. What role does Rustin see for Malcolm X and other "radicals of the movement"?
  4. Why, in his view, must the concept of collective struggle take precedence over individual achievement in the civil rights movement?
  5. How do the strategies urged by Rustin in 1965 differ from those employed by the movement in the early 1960s? Why the changes?
  6. Compare Rustin's analysis of the state of the civil rights movement in 1965 with that which Martin Luther King, Jr., offered in his final presidential SCLC address in 1967 (see #2: Reasoning).
  7. How, for Rustin, is the civil rights movement a revolution?
  8. Compare Rustin's views of revolution, expressed in "From Protest to Politics," with those Malcolm X expresses in "The Ballot or the Bullet"?
  9. How, in his view, did the civil rights movement democratize life for white Americans?
  10. What conception of African American identity is implicit in Rustin's argument?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

Rustin: 8 pages
Supplemental Sites
Bayard Rustin, overview in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Encyclopedia, King Papers Project, Stanford University

Bayard Rustin: Civil Rights Leader, from (Bill Samuel)

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, film website from the Bayard Rustin Film Project

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, film website from POV (Point of View/PBS)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Bayard Rustin (left), Deputy Director, and Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of Administrative Committee, March on Washington National Office, in front of 170 West 130th St., Harlem, New York City, 7 August 1963; New York World Telegram & Sun photograph by Orlando Fernandez. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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