by Zaid Jilani
Tuesday, 8
February 2022
HerdWatch
17:11

MSNBC tries to sanitise a civil rights hero

The network was wrong to portray Bayard Rustin as a progressive
by Zaid Jilani
Screengrab of MSNBC’s Bayard Rustin segment. Credit: MSNBC

As part of its programming around Black History Month, MSNBC aired a five-minute segment about Bayard Rustin, a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s no doubt that Rustin is a fascinating figure who played a huge role in the civil rights movement. But MSNBC’s coverage of his life provided little insight into Rustin’s ideas. The segment briefly touches on aspects of his ideology that align with contemporary progressivism, namely his role in helping organise the March On Washington and the civil rights campaigns in the American South.

The network focused on his sexual identity, noting that he came out gay early in life. “King knew that Rustin was gay, which was tough at the time in America regardless of your colour,” host Ali Veshi noted, adding that “others in the civil rights movement viewed Rustin’s sexuality as a liability.”

Rustin’s sexuality is indeed an important part of his life story, particularly given that he was organising in the mid-20th century, when strict taboos about homosexuality governed American civic life. But there’s a reason MSNBC focuses so closely on Rustin’s planning of famed civil rights actions and his gay identity; these aspects of his life align neatly with the modern progressive narrative.

Veshi and MSNBC did not inform their viewers that Rustin was also a strident opponent of many modern progressive proposals like racial quotas and reparations programmes. “The idea of reparations is a ridiculous idea,” Rustin once said. “If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”

Rustin was a labour Leftist who lamented what he called the “failure of black separatism.” He clashed with black nationalists, who he believed were undermining the movement towards cross-cultural solidarity. “If [the Negro] defines the problem as primarily one of race, he will inevitably find himself the ally of the white capitalist against the white worker,” he cautioned. “But if, though always conscious of the play of racial discrimination, he dines the problem as one of poverty, he will be aligned with the white worker against management.”

Rustin’s ideology also departs from modern progressives in his thoughts on Israel. While much of the Left views Israel as primarily a colonialist power subjugating the stateless Palestinians, Rustin held a more nuanced view. He admired aspects of Israeli society and unequivocally condemned terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), avoiding the draw of romanticising the leftist organisation’s activities.

Bayard Rustin is among the most interesting minds produced by the American Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his life, he remained a steadfast proponent of nonviolence and egalitarianism, even when it meant clashing with fellow progressives. We should teach his life and his ideas in all their complexity, not sanitise his legacy to fit narrow partisan narratives.

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Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
7 months ago

I think it was in Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes” (I could be wrong here as it’s a long times since I’ve seen or read the play) where one of her characters comments on the benefit to the capitalists of dividing black and white workers and keeping them at each other’s throats. It would seem that Bayard Rustin thought the same. Generally this neurotic concentration on race has negative consequences for the poor of all races, possibly more so for poor black people who are being told, in essence, not to become educated – that’ll keep them in their place.

PB Storyman
PB Storyman
7 months ago

Thank you, Mr. Jilani, for adding to this incomplete portrayal. Far too often, the two sides create narratives about historical figures to put them neatly into one camp or the other. This helps them maintain a strict “us and them” narrative into which everyone must fall. Kimberle Crenshaw recently placed Dr. MLK neatly into the pro-CRT camp. An American pastor used/misused a single verse in the book of Exodus to say that the Bible condones abortion. And our Pres. Biden famously used a litany of historical figures to justify the federalization of American voting.
Yet, reasonable people know that there is plenty of gray between the black and white. And it is there where we usually find the truth. I sense that the world is starting to swing back away from the extremes, away from the screaming hyperbole, and towards sensible discussions and reasonable disagreements. Such a swing may take a minute, but I hope such a movement will gain momentum. You, good sir, are helping.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
7 months ago

Sounds like a good bloke.

James Joyce
James Joyce
7 months ago

Interesting. But what will happen in 2028 (50 years after his death, when many records will be released) when Martin Luther King is revealed to be an informant for the FBI? The left will have some issues with the saintly MLK, American hero (?), being shown to be in this shabby business.
What is my source, you ask? A history professor, who is a huge fan of MLK, uncovered some documents that should not have been released but were, proving beyond peradventure that MLK was not as pure as the driven snow, with much more to come. Stay tuned!
Crazy left–get ready. One of your heroes to be cancelled in 6 years.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
7 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Some government records have a habit of disappearing especially if the government of the day is likely to be embarrassed by the disclosures. It might not be done by politicians just by politicised (un)civil servants for various reasons. I would put nothing past “The Blob” in UK or US.

James Joyce
James Joyce
7 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Excellent point. I am not unaware of this possibility, however I believe that MLK was a big informant for many years and it will be difficult, though not impossible, to hit “delete all.”
We’ll know in 2028.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
7 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

And if we don’t you’ll tell us to believe your facts?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
7 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

What’s wrong with being an FBI informant?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
7 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

That’s what I thought. He helped his country.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
7 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

when Martin Luther King is revealed to be an informant for the FBI?
They won’t have a problem with that – the FBI are heroes to modern progressives.
Until, of course, some new president decides to aim them at progressives.
Noel


Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
7 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

What, in 2028 MSNBC won’t airbrush MLK’s naughty bits?