The network was wrong to portray Bayard Rustin as a progressive
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.
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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.