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Interview with Bayard Rustin, 1982

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Summary
Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist, and the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He offers his interpretation of the historical meanings of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. He comments on the link between the civil rights and anti-war movements, and elucidates the debates within those movements over whether or not they should be linked. Mr. Rustin discusses the attempted marginalization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by various civil rights groups opposed to his anti-war stance on political grounds, and the role of the media on the radicalization of the civil rights movement.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Peace, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States--History--1945-, Civil rights workers, Government, Resistance to, Peace movements--United States, Civil rights movement, Religion and politics, United States--Politics and government
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Transcript

Historical perspective on the March on Washington

Vietnam. Bayard Rustin Interview. Sound Roll #2522. Camera Roll #542. Side A of tape.
This is October 7th, 1982. This is WGBH TVP 004 Vietnam.
Sound Roll #2522. Camera Roll #542. This is a reference tone coming up.
Tone.
Hissing.
Camera doing interview with Bayard Rustin. Call this sync 8 because it’s a continuation from this morning’s shoot with John Chancellor.
Tone.
Rustin:
Just start with my first question? Question is often raised as to what really was the March on Washington, what was it perceived to be and what did it become? And I think the important thing is what happened at that moment in history.
Siren sounds
Interviewer:
I think we'd better start over.
Rustin:
I told you. It inevitably happens every day in the late afternoon.
Sync nine coming up.
Tone.
Rolling.
Rustin:
I have on occasion been asked what is the historic meaning of the March on Washington? And I think eh...it was a turning point. For fifteen years there had been demonstrations all over this country. And Mr. Randolph felt that it was quite important to have a final and massive demonstration for two reasons. Because we were moving from a period of protest to one of political responsibility.
That is, instead of marching on the court house or the restaurant or the theater, we now had to march to the ballot box to make real what had occurred. And secondly, as to whether or not the coalition which had created what was soon to be a series of bills for the improvement of black people in this country, and incidentally women, because women were later to use those same bills as a basis of their liberation. Whether that coalition could remain for the economic period as it had remained for the period of protest.
Bearing in mind that it did not take a penny of government money in order to bring about the bills of the 60’s, but that if this coalition were to bring about the economic changes needed through protest, it would take billions of dollars. And, therefore, it was a closing down of one period, the opening of another. It was also a test as to whether that coalition could maintain itself.

L.B.J. and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Interviewer:
Let’s try a variation on the same question in terms of Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act – the signing of the Civil Rights Act. If you could give some sense of your own feelings at that moment – ah, your own view of what it meant to the movement and also of what Johnson, what it meant to him and this Great Society? Could you mention that too?
Rustin:
Ehhhhh, one is very often asked to compare presidents of the United States as to what they have meant in the great social struggle of black people, in particular. There is no question in my mind that Lyndon Johnson was second only to Abraham Lincoln in the contribution which he made. No president had ever made a speech such as the speech that Lyndon Johnson made in defense of the Great Society at Howard University.
It was moving for black people for once in their lives to hear a president who would say what they were saying. And he was very clever at it. He said, he ended that great speech on social change and a defense for increasing the Great Society with “We Shall Overcome.” That was very reassuring. It was ehhhh an emotional uplift.
My view is that the...progress which was made in that period was a different progress than most people think. That period was not directing itself to helping the poorest black people. It was not directed toward the poor.
It was a program which was directed both politically and psychologically to the black middle class who had nowhere to go, and who were therefore getting jobs in the name of the poor but not jobs for the poor, who were getting training in order to help the poor but were not, in fact, liberating the poor. Because the poor can only be liberated when they have got the training, the education, that the very people who were being helped by the war on poverty were getting.
So it was not a war on poverty. It was a war to politically satisfy the middle class blacks with education that the society would provide a place for them to go.
Interviewer:
Could you comment also on Johnson’s own - you have already - but in terms of society and the Civil Rights Act just because this is the footage that we have of that moment and what it meant to you, what do you think it meant to him? He meant it, didn’t he?
Rustin:
I think eh, well it was not really with Johnson a political endeavor. Uh, I believe that even the great Abraham Lincoln, for him it was basically a political endeavor. What he said was, "If I must maintain the Union, if I can maintain the Union by having some slavery, I will. If I can maintain the Union by eliminating all slavery, I will.”
Now, I think Johnson took a deeper point of view. It was that he had an abiding commitment that what was, that those bills were needed. He put himself on the line to do it, and deeply he knew that he was able to do so as a Southerner what the very popular Kennedy as a Northerner could never have done.
And Johnson put himself totally into that. And for that I think he is eternally to be praised by black people in the United States, and people who love democracy all over the world.

Black views of the Vietnam War

Interviewer:
How would you characterize black views on the Vietnam War? I’m going to ask you about your own views, first one general question. Black views of the war in Vietnam in the early years of our commitment from the time our troops went in in 1965 till about ’67.
Rustin:
In regard to Johnson and blacks and the war in Vietnam and the like, wherein early in the period in the war in Vietnam great numbers of white people had questions as to its justice, as to whether we could achieve it, uh what we were there for, as to whether it was right to be there, black people’s basic concern was very different.
It was, "Look at the overwhelming number of blacks who are in Vietnam. They are there disproportionately to their numbers in the population." And we took a very ethnic view of the war. It was that this was in a sense a very good thing that they were there. I’m not talking about my own view. I’m talking about the view of blacks in general.
Because just as we fought in the Civil War, just as we fought in the Revolutionary War, just as we fought in the War of 1812, we are in this one in greater numbers. And therefore, we should get greater credit and there should be an elimination of racial segregation and discrimination all the more rapidly because of the great contribution we are making. That was the original black perception of the war in Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Did it change during the same time though? I mean, polls showed that there, you know, that the blacks as a group were against the war, you know, more of them were against it earlier than whites. Would you agree with that? Or did it change because black kids started to die? Or do you think that they changed before?
Rustin:
Well, I think in any armed conflict as the caskets begin to come home, people begin to re-evaluate. And the very fact that there were a disproportionate number of blacks in Vietnam meant that very early a disproportionate number of caskets began to come back to the black community.
At that point they began to re-evaluate in the same way that the people of Argentina over the Falklands at first were very joyful to see the boys off. But when the bodies began to home they took a very different view.
Now, it was pretty much paralleling this period when a number of black militants uh and eh some blacks who were not so militant began to join the question as to whether the Vietnam War was, in fact, a good thing for the United States.
Interviewer:
Let’s first go before that to your own view on the war as an enterprise not so much as it affected – well, just what were your own views on it?
Rustin:
Let, in discussing my own views on the war, I have to raise a philosophical question.
Interviewer:
Excuse me sir, we only have...we have to change...let’s change back...
Rustin:
Okay.
Tone.
Start the camera roll #543, sync ten coming up.
Tone.
Interviewer:
Again, your own views on the war.
Rustin:
My own views on the war were complicated, as most conflicts that democracy is involved in are complicated. It is so easy to make a judgment between good and evil. But in most times where war is concerned where democracy is involved it isn’t that simple.
Eh, it is a conflict between two goods. The one good, we have a moral obligation where individual countries are attempting to struggle to remain democratic. We have a moral obligation to help them. On the other hand, we also have a moral obligation not to interfere with other people beyond a given point. And with that we have a moral obligation not to support undemocratic regimes.
These three ideas were all entwined together. And my first attitude when the war opened was, “Yes, as Americans we ought to be in there helping to maintain democracy.” But then in a few months I look around and discover that we are attempting to support democracy by relying on dictators and anti-democratic forces which were leading. At that point my cry became, "Support the Buddhists and support the trade unions as a third force to let them lead the democratic struggle."
Well, this never occurred. At that point then I began to feel like many, many other people – we’d better get out of that situation, because ultimately we can not make of it what we would like to make of it, which is ultimately what happened. But here again, the minute we got out there was another problem.
Because the totalitarians did, in fact, take over and the Vietnamese moved in at, to other, to Laos and Cambodia and ended up brutalizing almost as many people as we were (chuckling) brutalizing when we were there. So, eh it’s very difficult in a democracy to know where really to come down, because there are conflicting equally important ehhhh principals at work.

M.L.K., the Civil Rights Movement and their relation to the war

Interviewer:
Very interesting, because the next question is there was a debate within the Civil Rights Movement about whether to link it with the Anti-War Movement. That’s what I want to ask you about now.
Whereas you were opposed to war and if you could include that, I mean, that you knew a strong, had come to that conclusion, could you then go on to describe a little bit about that debate and give your arguments as to why you didn’t think they should be joined up?
Rustin:
Well, the debate within the black community had begun a long period before Dr. King joined that debate...because the war had been going on some time before Dr. King took a position. When Dr. King took a position against the war, all hell broke loose in the black community because the white community in its newspapers and columns were raising the question as to whether Civil Rights leaders had the right to raise questions!
Now, this is interesting because I wrote a column uh on this for March 3rd, 1967, in which I said number one, “Since Dr. King is a citizen of the United States, like all other citizens he has a moral obligation to let us know what his position is on the war.” Secondly, I said that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and he had, therefore, an obligation to speak.
But then I would like to quote, "On the other hand, however, if Dr. King makes proposals that others disagree with, they have the duty to differ with him on the merits or demerits of his proposals. Dr. King knows this and would expect no less. Such honest differences have encouraged Dr. King to embark upon an examination of his own position."
My position was, and I said this to Dr. King and I wrote it in this column, “If Dr. King attempts to combine the Civil Rights Issue and the Vietnam Issue in one institution, then he will be doing harm to both, because that institution cannot stand with those two elements. And therefore, Dr. King should work for civil rights with those elements which are for civil rights, and for against the war with those elements which are against it.” And particularly I encouraged him to get involved with Clergy Concerned, because I knew they did not have ulterior political motives as some of the others did.
Interviewer:
Excellent. Let’s do it again. We have the quote. Take your glasses off, just so that we’ll have continuity. If you could, after you the actual footage, could you tell us again your own view on why the two movements should not be linked.
Rustin:
Without glasses?
Interviewer:
Yes.
Rustin:
Yes. I had felt that Dr. King had every right to be a part of a movement against the war. But if he attempted to combine the movement against the war with the movement for civil rights, then that institution had to fall apart with internal bickering. Because many people in civil rights were for and against the war.
Now, therefore, I think that Dr. King should have given most of his time with Clergy Concerned, which were very clear on the war question. If he attempted to combine with the Urban League and the NAACP and CORE and SNCC to do his uh activity on the against the war in Vietnam, there would have been grave damage done to the Civil Rights Movement as such and to the Peace Movement, because both would have been splintered.
Interviewer:
Good. Could you describe why there would be conflict within the black community over his decision to come out against the war. Why was that a problem? Where was that conflict in your own opinion?
Rustin:
Yes. Eh, people asked why should it have been a problem? I don’t know that I can answer that. What I can answer is that it was a problem. For an example, the NAACP Roy Wilkins, the minute Dr. King came out, immediately went to the press to say, "That’s Dr. King! That’s not the Civil Rights Movement and the NAACP does not take such a position."
Then the Urban League had to clarify themselves. And SNCC and CORE. And at a moment when we were struggling to create a new coalition to replace the one which was falling apart after the March on Washington to meet the new problem of, of political action we found that the question of combining these two elements was splintering the black community. And I’m not placing any blame. I’m simply saying objectively it was splintered.
Interviewer:
Could you talk about it also in terms of the military and the way up and out of the slums. Did that present an additional problem? Could you discuss when he came to see you? You know, tragically it was true, you know that there were very few other options, but that that was a problem for blacks – there were so many other people fighting there.
Rustin:
Uh...the problem was created and here again you have an ambivalence, and you have two conflicting views within a single community expressing themselves one way at one time and one way at another. The war in Vietnam was the greatest employer of blacks because there was not a conscript army, but a volunteer army. It was the greatest employer at the very moment when black unemployment began to gallop more and more and more.
So that you found people very happy that there was someplace that their young people could go to find work in the Army. Incidentally, the Army providing many skills for uneducated, poorly educated poor people, black and white. And there was appreciation of that and a simultaneous almost hatred – why on earth should so many of our young people be fighting eh yellow people when black people do not have complete freedom? So there was a conflict!

L.B.J's complex role in civil rights and the war

Interviewer:
Let’s cut. Let’s stop.
Tone.
Interviewer:
Okay sir.
Rustin:
Uh, there was one other interesting factor here and that is was there any relationship between Lyndon Johnson’s complete support of the Black Movement uh and...his support of the war? How did this whole stand up in the minds of black people? I think that many strange things happened and this was one of them.
That the criticisms that blacks had of the war...were seldom directed toward Lyndon Johnson. It would be quite impossible simultaneously to be praising him except on a part of very sophisticated people. But what he was doing to be of help and to damn him for what he was doing...
Interviewer:
Let’s try again.
Tone.
END OF SIDE A. END OF SR #2522.
Bayard Rustin. Sound Roll #2523. Camera Roll #544. Side B of tape.
October 7th, 1982. TVP 004 Vietnam. Continuing an interview with Bayard Rustin. Camera roll #544 coming up and sync 12. Sync 12. Here’s a reference. Tone. Hiss for alignment. Hissing tone here.
Tone.
Interviewer:
Okay sir. Is that door open, or should I close it? Oh, how about the Diet Pepsi, is that in the shot?
Rustin:
I think there was another factor that led to ambivalence and confusion in judging the war in Vietnam in the black community. And that was that the man who most Americans held accountable for the escalation of the war was Lyndon Johnson. And the man whom blacks held responsible for creating the things which they needed was Lyndon Johnson.
This made a conflict in the black community. It made it difficult. And blacks did what many people in those circumstances do, did. They blamed the Congress and they blamed the Kennedys for starting it, and there was very little and could be very little direct criticism early of Lyndon Johnson. Later there was.
I think related to that question uh was an agony for black people. Because many of the most creative people in the non-black community – amongst Catholics, Protestants and particularly Jews, some of whom had been brutalized in the South, lynched in the South, uh, gone to jail in the South – many of these white people were...at odds...on the war with the generally held position of blacks in regard to Lyndon Johnson. They were beginning to attack Lyndon Johnson and simultaneously move away from the coalition of supporting blacks.
Now, I don’t say this was an evil thing as some blacks do. I simply say that they had, they had just recently got the bills...uh the Civil Rights Bill, the Voting Rights Bill. They felt now that they could turn their attention from the black community to the new and more compelling uh business of getting rid of the war.
In fact, one of my best friends wrote me a great and long letter – a young Jewish rabbi – saying that he had a moral obligation to blacks to lead the movement and to fight against the war in Vietnam in order that the war should be closed down so there could be a new effort at getting the funds needed in order to carry on the revolution. So it was very conflicting.

M.L.K.'s relation to the peace movement

Interviewer:
What was Dr. King’s response when you advised him - and were sort of backtracking here a bit - but uh if you could discuss your own, you know, making these arguments to Dr. King about keeping it separate and what he did.
Rustin:
Well, I think Dr. King, as he always did when I raised the question of not bringing these two groups together uh, his attitude was always, “Well Bayard, I think that you’ve made an important point and I will think about it.” However, in the meantime while he was thinking about the arguments which I was raising, it became very clear to him he could not because a few days after I made those arguments to him the Urban League, the NAACP, SNCC, CORE and others began to attack him quite unreasonably. Uh, the Urban League and the NAACP, reasonably, but others unreasonably.
And I think it was borne home to him that these movements could not be married. But I think what Dr. King then decided to do uh was to give more and more time to the struggle against the war in Vietnam because he too concluded that the revolution for the economic and social liberation of black people was to be stymied so long as the war continued. In other words, he was pretty much agreeing with the Jewish uh rabbi.
Interviewer:
Didn’t he then, he did go on to actually link the two movements? Did he not? I mean was there not a moment when at which he did? In other words, he didn’t keep them separate?
Rustin:
Uh he linked them only, Dr. King linked these two movements only to the degree that those particular blacks who wanted to fight against the war in Vietnam did it outside the Urban League and the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE and the Randolph Institute, and the like by going and joining Martin Luther King on platforms which had been established only by peace groups and did not include any of the major black agencies.
Interviewer:
Dr. King seems to have moved, at least in his rhetoric, to more and more urgency in his speaking out against the war and against the American involvement in Vietnam. By 1967 he called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." Could you comment on that and on - when this is finished - what the reaction in your view was from within the black community?
Rustin:
Well, Dr. King was truly a great man. But like most great men there are occasions when they say quite foolish things. And for Dr. King to have called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world eh when one considers the millions and millions of people that Stalin and the Russians had destroyed; when you consider the uh the what the Nazis had done, et cetera, this just seems to me to be a patently foolish statement.
Uh, but...having said that, I think Dr. King was under the moral imperative as a man who truly had over the years come to believe that violence in any form was destructive. And equally destructive to those against whom the violence is directed and those who are directing it. And I think that if he had put it in other terms, I think his statement would not have seemed silly.
And, but I think he didn’t quite say what he meant. I think what he meant was that if the United States considers itself the greatest defender of democracy, then it is in more trouble in using violence than any other nation. Uh, because we put ourselves forward as believers in violence only when absolutely imperative. And eh we had fought the war against eh Hitler on the basis that we were going in there because we were rooting out violence.

Media exploitation of Black radicals

Interviewer:
I was meaning to discuss with you before - I'll just try it on you. Could you discuss the problem caused by public pressure and media attention to black radicals? I guess what I’m looking for here is, you had talked before of the need to move from protest to politics and the name of the game in politics is compromise. Did you feel kind of cornered by the, by the noise being made and by the media attention through it or not, I don't know if you just think that...?
Rustin:
Well, the media...I think...eh like...any institution has moments of great glory and moments when they are not glorious. I think that it could be said that if the television had been available to America fifty years earlier, we would have got rid of lynching and brutalizing of blacks fifty years earlier.
The television bringing night after night the bombing of the churches, the cattle prods, the brutalization of children...those things were television and the media's greatest moment. Without that we could not have won the struggle. Now when things are settling down and the press doesn't have these dramatic things to present but needing something dramatic, they then turned to Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown and other blacks who were saying ridiculous things.
In fact, I went with Dr. King to see some people at The Times about this. And we complained. And eh when we were leaving eh one of the editors turned to Dr. King and said, “Dr. King, but you don’t understand the nature of mass media in the world.” And Dr. King said, “Well, would you explain it to me?” And he calmly put his hand on Dr. King’s (chuckling) shoulder and said, “Dr. King, the George Washington Bridge standing up is not news.”
Now, that was a problem. You had fifteen years of blacks in dramatic stances, but sensible ones! And the press wanted to keep on with this drama so they concentrated on Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown. Now that was dangerous because it frightened great numbers of white people who had been our friends and allies into believing that the movement had now gone berserk, that you can’t trust these up and coming youngsters. And eh...
Interviewer:
Okay, keep that up “...that frightened.”
Tone.
Starting Camera Roll #545, sync 13 coming up.
#545 camera roll.
Tone.
Rustin:
In discussing radicals of the 60’s and their effect in the face of the Vietnamese War and in the face of the decline that many people supporting the Civil Rights Movement had earlier done so, one has to recall the circumstances again. They were rioting in the cities, like Washington, New York and California – Watts. There were young blacks like Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown saying, “We ought to use violence. Violence is as American as apple pie.”
Well obviously, if we are moving to the period of politics where the essential name of the game has to be the ability to compromise, to win friends, to scratch backs in order to get your back scratched when you run into that kind of rhetoric as against the appearance of compromise and non-violence, eh these young blacks were essentially helping to destroy eh the movement. And they were at the same time confusing the...uh young blacks in terms of how now do we make progress.
And this meant fundamentally a decline in that great body of white Catholics, Protestants, Jews and trade unionists who had given us loyalty, and who had helped us to achieve the many things that we did achieve in the early 60’s.

Rustin on civil disobedience

Interviewer:
Now, this is sort of a different kind of question. But it relates to something that was earlier in our film and that is your views on the use of civil disobedience. Could you talk about it in terms of your own history long before the Vietnam War and then relate it to the guys who resisted the draft in the early years of the war. What you had said to us was if you take the consequences...
Rustin:
Yes.
Interviewer:
Okay, that’s what we’re interested in.
Rustin:
Yes. One aspect of the war in Vietnam was not only the number of people who stood up and said they could not support it and who were willing to take whatever consequences came, there were also for the first time in our history another phenomena. And that was young people who did not go in the draft but who did not take the consequences. They fled to Canada, they pretended they were homosexuals, they pretended they were mad, they took drugs before they went in to take an examination and all that kind of thing.
Now, for many years I’d been a follower of Mahatma Gandhi before King. I’d been in India working in the Gandhi movement. And the one thing is this...civil disobedience is in the interest of the state if one is sincere. If one is honest and prepared to go to jail and take the consequences, he will create new law which is better than the old law.
When some of us went to jail in the Second World War we were brutalized. But because we voluntarily went to jail the Congress said when we came out we must not do this to people who are conscientious anymore. So Congress passed a law saying that if you could prove conscientious objection, they would never again put men in jail. In other words, we made new law in the same way that Gandhi by his resistance to the British, brought about independence.
And Martin Luther King, by refusing to go and sit in restaurants uh and by refusing, by insisting on being served made new law, because that’s all gone. But that was done on the basis that people did not run because the state which supports me and gives me many opportunities – free education, the right of free religion, et cetera – I owe an obligation to this state!
And if I am willing to go to this state and say, “I cannot do this because I think it's wrong, but you have every right to put me in jail,” then I am improving the nature of the state. But to run to Canada or pretend something is not to improve the state.

Appraisal of the March on Washington

Interviewer:
One last thing. I want to try one more take on the March on Washington, somewhat shorter as the beginning and an end of coalition. It was a little encoded in your first take. Could you clarify moving from, moving to the next phase. Is that what you had hoped for and it didn't come to pass?
Rustin:
Now, do you want me to do that or not to do that? What is it you actually, what is the one simple thing you want me to do on the March on Washington?
Tone.
Sync 14.
Tone.
Rustin:
The historic significance to the March on Washington was that it closed down the phase of protest and opened up the possibility of the new situation which was moving from protest to politics. I say that day in Washington people felt so good. They felt that somehow or other as Martin Luther King did. They had a dream that everything was going to be alright.
The tragedy is...that we in moving from the protest to politics moved into a far more difficult period because to get the opportunity to go into theaters, hotels, restaurants, schools, etc., did not cost money. But the new phase, it became clear, was going to cost billions of dollars. And if it is to be achieved, will still cost billions of dollars. And that is a very much more difficult job, and we have yet to begin the completion of it.
Fine. All right.
Tone.
This is wild track 1,002 room tone to cover the Rustin interview.
Tone.
End Roll.
END OF SIDE B.
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