Rustin Instilled Power To The People
Celebrating the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a new book shares the correspondence Martin Luther King Jr.'s right-hand man, Bayard Rustin, known as the "lost prophet" of the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin, who was gay, was the target of the federal government, as he organized demonstrations, rallied activists, and lobbied politicians to help make life better for people of color. Below is an excerpt from Michael Long's new book, I Must Resist: The Life and Letters of Bayard Rustin (City Lights, $19.95), with exchanges taking place amid the New York Race Riots of 1964 and 1965.
RUSTIN TO MAYOR ROBERT WAGNER
In this urgent telegram, Rustin calls upon New York City Mayor Robert Wagner to take immediate and concrete steps, including the creation of a police review board comprised mostly of citizens, to avoid "a long, hot summer."
May 19, 1965
You will recall that almost a year ago Dr. Martin Luther King and I placed before you the demands that had been drawn up by New York's Negro leaders, and outlined a specific program designed to deal with the fundamental problems underlying the violence then raging in the ghettos of New York.
Paramount among those problems we stated were police brutality and economic hardship, particularly as manifest in unemployment of Negro and Puerto Rican youth.
The proposals we laid before you have not been implemented. Yet before us stretches a summer of even greater youth unemployment and summering discontent provoked by continuing examples of reported police brutality and discrimination, as in the Whitmore and Sideratos cases.
Having failed to move to eliminate the causes of social discord, you and your administration cannot escape major responsibility should last summer's tragedy be repeated.
The choice before you is clear; either you creatively meet the causes of discontent in spring, or negatively face another long, hot summer.
The prompt establishment of a genuine civilian police review board independent of the city administration, the creation of a municipal job program for youth, and the appointment of a qualified Puerto Rican to the school board are three among many steps that must now be taken.
Many of us who went in the streets last summer to help establish peace know that nothing short of a bold social and economic program can counteract the frustration in the city's ghettos. For social peace cannot exist in a vacuum; it is a byproduct of justice obtained.
I therefore call upon you to meet with the representatives of the Negro and Puerto Rican communities to present now your concrete proposals for implementing the programs that Negro and Puerto Rican leaders urged upon you since last summer—-the same proposals that Dr. King and I emphasized in three days of discussion with you and your aides.
I repeat: better to have a well planned spring than a long, hot summer once again.
J. EDGAR HOOVER TO ATTORNEY GENERAL ROBERT KENNEDY
Hoover's letter is especially interesting because of its suggestion that Rustin and King had been talking privately about the possibility of making public statements about the Vietnam War. On June 8, Bayard himself delivered an antiwar speech before 17,000 protestors during a four-hour rally at Madison Square Garden. According to the New York Times, Rustin "advised the crowd to take to the streets." Speaking after Rustin, Benjamin Spock then "called upon those left in the Garden to do just that," and 2,000 demonstrators marched to the United Nations complex. Coretta Scott King spoke at the event, too, but her husband was noticeably absent.
June 4, 1965
A technical surveillance was instituted on the residence of Bayard Rustin, Apartment 9J 340 West 28th Street, New York City, on November 15, 1963. Rustin is a former member of the Young Communist League, an organization which has been designated subversive pursuant to Executive Order 10450. He has for many years maintained an association with members of the Communist Party, USA. Rustin is a principal leader in the civil rights movement and is frequently an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.
This technical surveillance has provided much valuable intelligence concerning communist influences upon King. It has also been a prolific source relative to advance planning of racial demonstrations throughout the country. Some examples will serve to illustrate.
In February, 1965, information was obtained concerning King's meeting with his advisers who have communist backgrounds prior to a meeting which King had with the President and you. During March 1965, we learned of the plans of King and the aforementioned advisers relative to the marches which took place that month in the Selma-Montgomery, Alabama area. In April, 1965, we learned that King was joining others to protest the United States policy relative to Vietnam.
Unless you instruct to the contrary, this technical surveillance will be continued for an additional six months.
J. Edgar Hoover
Rustin was indeed counseling the Nobel Peace Prize winner to make a public stand against the war, and King would do so in July, when he took the occasion of a speech before the Virginia branch of the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] to state: "I'm not going to sit by and see war escalated without saying anything about it." King added that the Vietnam War "must be stopped," and that he was considering joining peace rallies. "We're not going to defeat communism with bombs and guns and gases," he stated. A month later, on August 12, King would then use a mass rally in Birmingham, with help and counsel from Rustin, to call for President Johnson to issue "unconditional and unambiguous" statements indicating a willingness to negotiate with the Vietcong, and to "consider halting the bombing of North Vietnam." He also stated that he would ask the leaders of North and South Vietnam to negotiate an end to this war. This announcement, which clearly echoed Rustin's own evolving thoughts, differed sharply from statements issued by radical pacifists who were calling for an immediate and unconditional end to the war.