Bayard Rustin: the forgotten man behind the 1963 march

August 26, 2013 at 5:27 pm (Anti-Racism, civil rights, gay, good people, history, homophobia, political groups, protest, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States)

Above: Bayard Rustin

As the world gears up for the fiftieth anniversary of the great 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, the Social Democrats USA remember the crucial role of Bayard Rustin, and the “Shachtmanite” organisation, of which he was a member: their role has been figuratively airbrushed out of official histories. Rustin was the key figure linking the Civil Rights movement and the unions:

By David Hacker

The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is [this coming Wednesday]. Everyone knows about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered at the rally outside the Lincoln Memorial for this event. What most do not know is that the entire march was conceived and planned by the Shachtmanites. A Philip Randolph conceived it. But Max Shachtman also had a hand in the idea for the march. He also chose Rustin to be the main organizer for the march. When Rustin was caught and arrested for homosexual conduct in a men’s room in Washington, Shachtman (though he was a homophobe) outlined for Bayard a defense of his action. Randolph was being pressured to fire Rustin and Southern Senators, such as Strom Thurmond, were attacking him on the issue of immorality. But as a result of Shachtman’s defense, Rustin continued to be the main organizer of the march (though his official position was downgraded a bit.), and he hired many Shachtmanites such as Norman Hill and Tom Kahn to assist him. At the same time, Bogdan Denitch organized the West Coast version of the march in California. At the rally itself, Kahn wrote the controversial speech by SNCC chair John Lewis in which the advanced text contained attacks on the Kennedy Administration and stated that “the revolution is at hand. We will take matters in our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us a victory…If any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.” Then Att. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy said that Lewis shouldn’t be allowed to deliver his speech at the March. Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, the Catholic prelate of Washington protested that he wouldn’t deliver the invocation for the rally if Lewis delivered his speech. Randolph, King, Rustin, Kahn and Lewis and other leaders of SNCC argued about revising the speech while the rally had already started. Finally, Lewis agreed to a rewritten speech and he was allowed to address the masses gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. (Lewis is now a Democratic congressman from Atlanta.)

What most history books do not tell you about is the Socialist Party conference that was held in Washington after the rally was over. It was entitled, “Socialist Party National Conference on the Civil Rights Revolution”. This was a 2 day affair held at the Burlington Hotel from Thursday August 29-Friday August 30, 1963. (The SP had a party for Marchers and Conference participants on the evening of August 28th after the conclusion of the March on Washington and rally.) The first session was Thursday morning with the theme: “Toward Full Equality in a Progressive America. Chairman of the session was Richard Parrish ( who was the chairman of the Civil Rights Committee of the United Federation of Teachers, Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers and Treasurer of the Negro-American Labor Council. Parrish was also running on the SP line for a special election for NYC Councilmember at Large in Manhattan and was supported enthusiastically by all factions of the SP.) Speakers were Norman Thomas, Floyd McKissick, Chairman of CORE (spoke in place of James Farmer, who was in jail in Louisiana), A. Philip Randolph and Congressman William Fitts Ryan (D-NY), a leader of the reform Democrats. Special remarks by Samuel H. Friedman, SP VP candidate in 1952 and 1956 and former editor of the Socialist Call. The afternoon session was entitled: “The New Phase: A Prospectus for Civil Rights.” Chairman of the session was long time SP activists Seymour Steinsapir. Speakers were Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director March on Washington. Responding to Rustin’s address were Robert Moses, Field Secretary, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Ike Reynolds, Task Force, CORE and Tom Kahn, Staff, March on Washington. The evening sessions theme was “A Political Strategy for Civil Rights. The sessions’s chairman was Eleanor Holmes, now DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. She introduced the conference’s keynote speaker, Max Shachtman, who spoke on the topic, “Drive Out Dixiecrats For Jobs and Freedom.” Responding to Shachtman’s address were Ernest Calloway, President, St Louis Chapter of the Negro-American Labor Council, and Wiloughby Abner, Vice-President, NALC, National Staff, UAW. The final session of the Conference took place on Friday morning. It’s subject was “Fair Employment-Full Employment. The chairman of the meeting was Warren Morse (a name I am unfamiliar with). Speakers were Lewis Carliner, Assistant to the Director, International Affairs Dept., UAW, Norman Hill, Assistant Program Director, CORE, Cleveland Robinson, Secretary Treasurer, District 65 RWDSU, Co-Chairman of March, Herman Roseman, Economist. Closing Remarks and Summary by Norman Thomas.

Thus, well known figures took part in this conference. such as leaders of CORE, SNCC, Randolph, Rustin, Norman Thomas, Norm Hill, Kahn, prominent folk singers like Joan Baez, etc. But my main point is that the Shachtmanites, militant civil rights leaders, labor, were all united seemingly in the same broad realignment movement of the democratic Left. SDS was still also a part of this coalition, despite of Harrington’s tirade against them over the Port Huron Statement, the year before. As long as the Shachtmanite-militant civil rights alliances continued, it would be counter-productive for SDS to seem to be against this realignment coalition. This is the very positive aspect of the Shachtmanites activities in the SP that too many are unfortunately not aware of. Harrington was not at the March. He was in Paris writing his second book, The Accidental Century.

David Hacker is Vice Chair of Social Democrats USA.  The above article is excerpted from a book he is writing about Max Shachtman.  Historical note: The Socialist Party in existence in 1963 would be renamed Social Democrats, USA in 1972.  Harrington chose to leave the organization at that time.  But organized labor stayed and so did Bayard Rustin, becoming National Chairman.


More on Rustin’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, and his subsequent political evolution, here

Gary Younge in the Gruan doesn’t even mention Rustin’s Shachtmanism

H/t: Bruce


  1. bleraGOMMM coMCenmteatry said,

    He supported America’s genocide in Vietnam and Apartheid South Africa’s invasion of Angola. I can see why the crypto-tory Jim Denham loves him so much.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      And in 1939 Trotsky offered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee:

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        To elaborate.

        For me, you and I am pretty sure every one who contributes to or reads this blog Stalinism is a historical abstraction.

        I myself was born 4 years after the 20th Congress of the CPSU emptied the Gulag, only ‘knew’ the USSR and its satellites in its decadent and massively less murderous post-Stalinist phase and in retrospect can even partially agree with the odious George Galloway’s line about its fall being the greatest catastrophe of our lifetime.

        But Rustin like his mentor Shachtman was formed politically not in the 60s and 70s but in the 30s and 40s when to become a Trotskyist was to join a movement whose leaders – and their supporters, friends and families – were under a perpetual suspended death sentence and for whom Stalinism was a real and existential threat to themselves and the whole human race.

        So their line on Vietnam was a simple one of bourgeois democracy being preferable to Stalinism and to quote the pamphlet Rustin co-wrote on Angola (which incidentally doesn’t quite support the South African intervention and actually attempts to frame resistance to the extension of Soviet power in terms of pan-african anti-imperialism):

        Angola is Russia’s Vietnam, however, in the sense that it, like Vietnam, represents a triumph for Moscow, a defeat for the United States, and a catastrophe for a great number of people who are being subjected to a totalitarian nightmare.

        Click to access SDP2.pdf

        If you saw the USSR only through the prism of Stalinism (and the then near universal theories of totalitarianism which conflated it with fascism) then the extension of its evil empire had logically to be opposed by whatever means were necessary.

        Plus in their analysis the USSR represented a new form of imperialism which was programmed to expand and could only fall if that expansion was halted and its internal contradictions allowed to re-assert themselves (which arguably is exactly what did happen eventually).

        Add to that the soul-destroying necessity of operating in the hopeless US political system where only lib-labbery offered any chance of securing even the most basic reforms (like actually giving a Bayard Rustin the same civil rights as a white heterosexual),

        As a child of the 60s who is only Left at all because so many horrific images from Vietnam invaded my childhood and adolescence I can’t agree or even empathise with the position they took.

        But it is not inconsistent or inexplicable – like Trotsky himself these were men who genuinely fought real monsters and as Nietzsche warned in doing so became somewhat monstrous themselves.

  2. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    And you can bring it all back to Shachtman’s mature analysis of bureaucratic collectivism and rejection of the state capitalist explanation:

    He was trying to fit bureaucratic collectivism into the broad epochal schema laid down by Marx, but remained within the parameters laid down by Trotsky in 1939: Stalinism was either part of the epoch of the transition to socialism inaugurated by the 1917 revolution; or it represented the collapse of civilisation (i.e. barbarism)

    In both the ortho-Trot and state-cap views Stalinism was a detour but still at least potentially offered hope of the working class re-asserting itself and progress being resumed towards the final socialist destination.

    But if you define Stalinism as the ideological manifestation of a new form of totalitarian barbarism which if victorious would end the progress of the human race you can’t long sustain a genuine third camp position but must oppose it at all costs.

    Plus this also has wider political consequences in that it presents both bourgeoisie and proletariat with one and the same existential menace and thus provides underpinning for the neo-popular frontism which characterised late Shachtmanism (and which its SDUSA revenant evidently still pursues) – and which even if there had not been a real Soviet menace to frighten the bourgeoisie into reformist concessions was in any case the only practical option for an American Left that wants to achieve anything at all other than futile sloganising.

  3. dsalaborblogmoderator said,

    Thanks for sharing this. especially the information about the Socialist Party conference. However, there are some significant errors which may be have crept in during the editing or a hurried writing for a blog post.. It was, of course, A. Philip Randolph–not Max Shachtman– who chose Rustin to be chief organizer for the 1963 march. When Roy Wilkins of the NAACP objected to Randolph’s proposal that Rustin be the director of March, Randolph said, then he would be the director.. After consensus was reached, Randolph added that he, of course, had the right to appoint a deputy and that would be Rustin.

    The idea that Shachtman could pick the organizer for the largest civil rights march in American history is strange indeed.

    Rustin was not arrested in DC in 1963 for homosexuality in a bathroom, perhaps David is thinking of LBJ aide Walter Jenkins who was arrested in those circumstances in 1964. Rustin’s arrest was in 1953 in California. It was that arrest, draft resistance, and Rustin’s CP membership circa 1940 that Sen. Strom Thurmond used in a vain attempt to smear Rustin and the March. It was Randolph who quickly organized a press conference of civil rights leaders to defend Rustin. It was Randolph strong defense and that of NAACP chief Roy Wilkins that turned the day. This was a very quick reaction. It is improbable that Shachtman had any role in this.

    Thurmond had begun a broader attack on Communist infiltration of the civll rights movements several weeks earlier. It is likely that Kahn, Shachtman, and others talked strategy and tactics on how to respond. Perhaps Hacker has conflated these two related bit distinct events.

    John Lewis wrote the first draft of his speech, then other SNCC folks added their thoughts. It was very much a cooperative group effort and statement. Several weeks before the March, Lewis came to New York and showed it to Rustin who suggested that Kahn be asked to punch it up.
    Randolph and Lewis talked for hours the night before the speech to resolve the issues over the speech. On the day if the speech, according to Charles Euchner’s Nobody Turn Me Around (p. 151), Kahn was part of a team rewriting Lewis speech, but the main writer was Courtland Cox.

    –Stuart Elliott

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      The underlying issue is that lefties tend to take little interest in Shachtman after the abandonment of third campism and dissolution of the ISL and so it is quite easy to over-estimate his actual influence.

      Peter Drucker’s book Max Shachtman and his Left for instance IIRC skates over his whole last decade and a half of life in a very few obviously pained pages.

      And whoever was responsible for uploading stuff to the Shachtman section (190+ items) at mysteriously stops dead at October 1957.

      For this reason alone a book by Hacker which did give his period in the SP and SDUSA detailed treatment would be welcome.

      Interestingly the quite voluminous (31 feet of shelf space) Shachtman archive at NYU appears to contain no correspondence whatsoever with Rustin or relating to the SNCC:

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for that, Stuart: you clearly know what you’re talking /writing about. Further contributions will be welcome.

  5. Economic justice and the March on Washington | FortLeft said,

    […] Bayard Rustin: the forgotten man behind the 1963 march ( […]

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