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Bayard Rustin and the Audacity of Hope

11/25/2013 03:40 pm 15:40:28 | Updated Jan 25, 2014

President Obama's posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bayard Rustin on November 20, 2013, marked overdue recognition of Rustin's extraordinary contributions to the civil rights movement. On another level, Rustin's strategic vision has prophetic relevance for our time. It embodies the "audacity of hope" that we can build a deeper and more vibrant democracy.

Rustin recognized the need for pluralistic and coalition politics which could win over the great majority of Americans to the work of creating a more egalitarian society. He realized the need for building independent centers of power through community organizing.

He also anchored his strategy for change in a challenge still largely unaddressed by either political progressives or by community organizers -- a call for the democratic transformation of the social fabric itself. In contrast, today's activists have an anti-institutional bias rooted in the widespread assumption that institutions are largely impervious to change.

As Charles Euchner shows in Nobody Turn Me Round: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was indispensable to creating the platform for "I Have a Dream." He was also a key strategist of many other phrases of the movement - a main actor in creating the Freedom Rides, Martin Luther King's tutor in nonviolence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an architect of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Rustin lived a complicated life. A Quaker, he was a conscientious objector in World War II. He was gay. He had been in the Young Communist League as a young man. As a nonviolent African-American gay former communist, Rustin was extremely controversial. Civil rights leaders kept him behind the scenes. But his accomplishments were legendary.

Rustin's question was the one familiar to community organizers, how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind program. As Euchner shows, Rustin was sophisticated in work with the Kennedy administration as he organized the March on Washington. He recognized the importance of being in relationship with the White House, knowing well the presidency's multiple roles in setting the nation's agenda. He also was careful not to be co-opted by the White House agenda. Rustin continually kept in mind the main task, building an independent citizen movement for ending racial discrimination, achieving greater equality, and deepening democracy.

In his view, this required that the movement's goals evolve to meet the times. In his 1965 Commentary article "From Protest to Politics," Rustin pointed out the changing tasks facing African-Americans after the end of formal, legal segregation:

"The Negro today finds himself stymied by obstacles of far greater magnitude than the legal barriers he was attacking before: automation, urban decay, de facto school segregation. These are problems which, while conditioned by Jim Crow, do not vanish upon its demise. They are more deeply rooted in our socio-economic order; they are the result of the total society's failure to meet not only the Negro's needs, but human needs generally."

Rustin worried that the movement's strategic capacity was eroding, just as its tasks were growing. Thus he questioned the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute "posture and volume" for "effect." Militants, he argued,

"...are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts--by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flagellants, they may gleefully applaud (though not really agreeing with) Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing."

He proposed a different approach -- change in the nation's very institutional structure:

"Hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions--social, political, and economic institutions--which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed... and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology."

With this argument Rustin challenged conventional wisdom on a grand scale. Though he did not develop the idea in detail, as far as I know, serious institutional reconstruction to achieve greater equality and deeper democracy necessitates not only transforming institutional racism, part and parcel of American society since European settlement. It also requires reversing what the South African public intellectual Xolela Mangcu calls "technocratic creep," the bureaucratization which is a defining feature of modern societies everywhere.

Bureaucratization involves the spread of norms and practices which replace tradition and communal values with efficiency and goal-oriented rationality. Max Weber called this culture "the polar night of icy darkness." The spreading polar night, what Weber also called the "iron cage," has long been taken as inevitable.

Today, despite widespread fatalism, there are multiplying signs that inevitable technocracy is not so. In earlier Huffington Post blogs with Blase Scarnati, John Spencer, Jason Lowry, and Jen Nelson, I described democratizing cultural change in K-12 schools, colleges and universities.

In a new series in The Boston Globe, "Trench Democracy ," Albert Dzur chronicles "democratic professionals [who] are creating power-sharing arrangements in organizations, institutions, and workplaces that are usually hierarchical and non-participatory."

Finally, "Civic Studies," a new interdisciplinary area of civic engagement, is gaining authority as a citizen-centered alternative to top-down problem solving and government-centered democracy. Its framing statement, The New Civic Politicshttp://activecitizen.tufts.edu/circle/summer-institute/summer-institute-of-civic-studies-framing-statement/, co-authored by Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom and six others, stresses citizens as agents of change and co-creators of democracy. Civic Studies includes revitalizing the public work roles and practices of institutions.

All these signs help to vindicate Bayard Rustin's belief that institutional reconstruction is possible. Many years ago, he called for what Italian activists once termed "the long march through the institutions."

The march may be gaining momentum.

Boyte, who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a college student, is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is also one of the co-authors of The New Civic Politics.