Rustin outside the March on Washington’s Harlem office, circa 1963. (Photo: Bennett Singer)
In late 1958 Bayard Rustin sat in my studio apartment and, as one socialist comrade to another, described his vision of the movement for social change that was coming. By that time Bayard was a seasoned veteran of the struggle for Black civil rights, having started in the early days of World War Two in A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington for equal job rights. When the Montgomery bus boycott broke out in the first capital of the Confederacy, Bayard quickly put his organizational expertise at the disposal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and became a close advisor to the young minister. As important as the achievement of equal rights for African Americans was to him, Rustin was already thinking beyond the Montgomery victory. In effect, he said that the achievement of legal civil rights was necessary but not sufficient. The real liberation of Black folk would not come until we had achieved an economy of full employment at living wages for all, health care for everyone, access to education for everyone and decent housing. Of course, the achievement of these goals would benefit far more white than Black people, and that was Bayard’s point: Black and white had in common that they were overwhelmingly working class and in need of a robust program of economic help. A coalition for the working class, composed of the labor movement, middle class liberals and the civil rights movement would provide the muscle that would transform American society, and the civil rights revolution would give initial force to that coalition. By 1963, he was the organizer of the March for Jobs and Freedom that literally embodied his vision of a coalition.
Throughout 1964 and 1965 it seemed that he had been prophetic. On March 15, 1965, Johnson electrified the nation by using the revolutionary watchwords “We shall overcome” as he challenged Congress to put teeth into the previous year’s Civil Rights Act by passing a strong voting rights act, a measure that could transform the politics of the southern states. In April Congress passed an education bill that would provide Federal aid to poor school districts. July saw amendments to the Social Security Act that created Medicare and Medicaid and raised benefits to retirees. This action raised millions of the elderly out of poverty and health insecurity and, surely, we thought, was a preface to universal health coverage. In August Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. If 1964 was good, 1965 was breathtaking.
In February of 1965 Bayard Rustin made a public statement of the argument that he had been making for years and once more seemed far-sighted. In an important article, “From Protest to Politics,” he said that the war against legal discrimination and segregation had been won, although some mopping up needed to be done. The time had come for an attack on the much more difficult economic problems of Black and white workers. This was to be done by the March for Jobs and Freedom coalition: the civil rights movement, liberals, faith groups and the labor movement. Together these powerful groups would engage in political action, move the Johnson administration from the center and permanently change America.
As eloquent and hopeful as the article was, one word did not appear in it: Vietnam. This was a fateful omission. In counterpoint to the great domestic achievements of 1965 was a steady build-up of U.S. military forces in South Vietnam and the beginning of a massive air bombardment of North Vietnam. By December the United States had 200,000 troops engaged in the conflict and had plans to send more. Before it could solidify, the coalition began to come apart. Civil rights, faith and liberal groups started to demand an end to the growing war and turned against the Johnson administration. The labor movement stood by Johnson and scorned its former allies. Not only did the coalition collapse but the Vietnam war became the only political topic, the elephant in every room. The summer of 1964 had been the Freedom Summer, when hundreds of young people had gone to Mississippi to register Black voters, at literal risk of their lives. By the summer of 1965 many of these same activists were working in the nascent peace movement. The civil rights movement began to flounder as it tried to find a path forward.
Bayard made one last attempt to save the dream. He enlisted Leon Keyserling, first Chair of President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers and a member of the social democratic wing of the New Deal, and others in a year-long effort to draft a Freedom Budget that would end poverty within 10 years, provide full employment at living wages and guarantee income to those who could not or should not work. These goals were to be accomplished not by increased taxes but by planned national economic growth. Further, this was a “guns and butter” document. In deference to the sensitivities of Lyndon Johnson, it did not require taking from the stream of billions of dollars that were being used for the war. We could, it seemed, have domestic reform and a war in Southeast Asia.
When it was released in early 1967, the Freedom Budget had introductory statements by A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. and was signed by all of “the usual suspects:” labor leaders, bishops, great names of the civil rights movement, liberal leaders. It was Rustin’s March 1963 coalition in a pamphlet. It was also dead on arrival. For many of the signers, the mere act of adding their names was the last effort they made to advance the Freedom Budget. There was a complete absence of the grass-roots movement that was necessary to move forward such a far-reaching program. The coalition was dead.
And so the country lurched on, into the dreadful year of 1968. The U.S. had more than half a million soldiers in Vietnam by then, and it seemed that there was no way to bring them home. A revolt of the young people drove President Johnson from seeking re-election. Then came the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy in June. A hundred thousand protesters gathered at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and, while the delegates nominated Hubert Humphrey, the nation watched virtual war in the streets of Chicago. Humphrey’s candidacy was fatally wounded at what should have been his moment of triumph. He would go on to lose by only half a million votes, but the great movement that had started with FDR in 1933 had reached its end.
Could we have changed this result? Certainly we could not stop our opposition to the war for the sake of Party unity. Perhaps we might have overcome the great sense that Hubert Humphrey had betrayed us and backed him as the lesser evil. Then, sometimes wise politics demands too much.
But history moves in strange ways. Marching in Washington that hot day in August 1963 was a young college student from Brooklyn. After years of domination of the Democratic Party by the neoliberals and contempt heaped by them on social democratic principles, that man, now a United States Senator, called us to battle and nearly took the presidential nomination from the entrenched centrists. We have come full circle. Now we have another chance to get it all.