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The Limits of Radical Protest

Those fighting for social change today would do well to heed Bayard Rustin’s advice about how to build sustainable and effective political movements.

· 12 min read
The Limits of Radical Protest
Civil Rights leaders Bayard Rustin and Dr. Eugene Reed at Freedom House 1964. Wikimedia Commons

Bayard Rustin was one of the towering figures in the American civil rights movement. A democratic socialist and a lead organizer of the March on Washington, Rustin was also among the most forceful and compelling advocates for a sweeping set of social and economic changes intended to bring about what he described as “full racial equality.”

In February 1965—a year and a half after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and just seven months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act—Rustin published an essay in Commentary titled “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.” This title captured a theme of Rustin’s work in the years to follow—he was a radical pragmatist who believed the campaign for civil rights was the starting point for a much larger struggle: the fight to build a fairer and more just society for all.

Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Rustin had just witnessed tectonic legal and political changes in the United States when he urged his fellow Americans to embark on this project. As he put it at the beginning of his essay, the “elaborate legal structure of segregation and discrimination, particularly in relation to public accommodations, has virtually collapsed.” But he argued that this merely marked the transition from one phase of economic and social mobilization to the next: “What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them? The minute the movement faced this question, it was compelled to expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations, including the role of education in modern society.”

Rustin believed this expanded vision would require a fundamental restructuring of the economic system in the United States, and the first step toward realizing this goal was the recognition that broad multiracial political mobilization was necessary. “The civil rights movement,” he explained, “is evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question.” He believed in the potential transformative power of “linking Negro demands to broader pressures for radical revision of existing policies.” The core theme throughout Rustin’s essay is that there’s only one way to make these reforms a reality: “How are these radical objectives to be achieved? The answer is simple, deceptively so: through political power.”

Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

“The future of the Negro struggle,” according to Rustin, “depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States.” He believed this process could start with the formation of a new political coalition after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964—a coalition of “Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.” Rustin argued that Johnson would be making a mistake if he attempted to govern as a centrist—he would squander his huge popular mandate trying to maintain a coalition that was doomed to unravel anyway. If, on the other hand, Johnson used his mandate to “set fundamental changes in motion, then the basis can be laid for a new mandate, a new coalition including hitherto inert and dispossessed strata of the population.”

This was Rustin’s great political project after the passage of the Civil Rights Act: galvanizing as many Americans as possible around large-scale social and economic change (the vehicle for pursuing this change was the Freedom Budget for All Americans, which Rustin developed and advocated along with A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr.). To accomplish these ambitious goals, Rustin argued that “motion must begin in the larger society, for there is a limit to what Negroes can do alone.” He observed that the national campaign for civil rights should evolve into a more inclusive and comprehensive political movement: “At issue, after all, is not civil rights, strictly speaking, but social and economic conditions.” And he wanted this movement to be driven by the belief that fundamental change was possible.

What would Rustin have to say about the state of the struggle for racial and economic equality today? We can’t possibly know the answer to this question, but anyone fighting for large-scale social change would do well to heed Rustin’s advice about how to build sustainable and effective political movements.

First, in keeping with the title of Rustin’s essay, protest shouldn’t displace politics. Despite the fact that Rustin was one of the main organizers responsible for the most important protest in American history, he was wary of the tendency for protest to become “an end in itself and not a means toward social change.” In a 1979 interview, Rustin said, “Protest is no substitute for the ballot box, which we have now.” While many view protesting as an indispensable form of political engagement, Rustin often counterposed the two: “What began as a protest movement,” he said in reference to the fight for civil rights, “is being challenged to translate itself into a political movement.”

In the same interview, Rustin explained that one of the reasons the civil rights movement succeeded was that its “objectives were very concrete and exceedingly limited. … It was limited to three things only: the right to vote, the right to use public accommodations, and the right to send your child to the school of your choice.” Contrast these aims with the platforms of more diffuse and less organized protest movements active today. A policy platform published by the Movement for Black Lives, for instance, calls for a dizzying array of radical reforms: an overhaul of the criminal justice system; comprehensive immigration reform; the abolition of the death penalty; an end to the war on drugs; the demilitarization of law enforcement; electoral reform; universal healthcare; and universal access to housing. Consider this single entry under the heading “End the War on Black Health and Black Disabled People”:

Universal health care is more than Medicare for All. Our entire health care system must be reorganized to ensure the physical, mental, and spiritual health, well-being, self-determination, agency, and autonomy of Black people, to eliminate profiteering insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment industries, and to create conditions that will allow healing of our bodies, minds and spirits, and of the generational trauma which contributes to the war on Black health.

Universal healthcare is one of the longest-standing progressive policy priorities in the United States, and anyone who recalls the bitter fight over the Affordable Care Act will recognize how difficult the passage of a Medicare for All bill would be. Today’s activists don’t just have long and quixotic wish-lists—they also pursue policies that are anathema to the majority of Americans (including black Americans). A year after demands to “defund/abolish the police” swept the country when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, a poll of voters in the city found that the majority were opposed to reducing the size of the police force. While 51 percent of white voters expressed opposition to a smaller police force, this proportion surged to 75 percent among black voters. Yet Black Lives Matter still lists “Defund the police” as one of its core demands. As Rustin put it, the “world of black Americans is full of divisions.” One major problem with identity politics is that the assumption of ideological uniformity among any demographic group is unstable.

George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte, May 2020. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Rustin didn’t have much patience for protesters who were unwilling to compromise on their cherished beliefs to get things accomplished. He observed that “there is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.” When social movements succeed in gaining power, they’re often forced to forge coalitions, strike deals, and appeal to larger constituencies. When they lack power, they’re more vulnerable to the corruptions of groupthink, ideological zealotry, and utopian thinking.

This brings us to Rustin’s second warning: if you seek transformative social and economic change, you have to build large, organized, and multiracial political coalitions: “In arriving at a political decision,” he wrote, “numbers and organizations are crucial, especially for the economically disenfranchised.” While Rustin attributed the success of the civil rights movement to its limited concrete goals, it’s also true that the movement was about much more than the rights he mentioned—it was a demand for basic freedom and dignity which urged all Americans to fundamentally rethink their attitudes toward race. And the political project Rustin pursued after the “legal foundations of racism in America were destroyed” between 1954 and 1964 was anything but modest: “We need to propose alternatives to technological unemployment, urban decay, and the rest. We need to be calling for public works and training, for national economic planning, for federal aid to education, for attractive public housing—all this on a sufficiently massive scale to make a difference.”

Rustin attacked moderates who “do not even envision radical changes.” He argued that “their admonitions of moderation are, for all practical purposes, admonitions to the Negro to adjust to the status quo, and are therefore immoral.” But Rustin was also critical of the “tendency within the civil rights movement which, despite its militancy, pursues what I call a ‘no-win’ policy.” Rustin went on to explain what motivated this faction:

Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen 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.

Recall the antiracist fervor that spread across the United States after the murder of George Floyd. Many of these protests took a strange turn when white liberals tried to outdo one another in their quest to demonstrate their antiracist credentials with increasingly cringeworthy displays of masochistic contrition. In an article for Reason, the linguist and social critic John McWhorter (author of the 2021 book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America) summarized a few of the stranger instances of public self-abnegation:

In Bethesda … protesters kneeled on the pavement in droves, chanting allegiance with upraised hands to a series of anti-white privilege tenets incanted by what a naïve anthropologist would recognize as a flock’s pastor. On a similar occasion, white protesters bowed down in front of black people standing in attendance. In Cary, North Carolina, whites washed black protesters’ feet as a symbol of subservience and sympathy. Elsewhere, when a group of white activists painted whip scars upon themselves in sympathy with black America’s past, many black protesters found it a bit much.

White self-flagellants, indeed. These spectacles weren’t harmless—at a time when Americans were more focused on racism and inequality than they had been in many years, creepy images of foot-washing and fake whip scars angered and alienated people. But there’s a more foundational problem with the argument that the way to address racial inequality is a society-wide influx of antiracist training and unsparing introspection (the project of prominent antiracism campaigners like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi). As McWhorter puts it: “The idea that political work must be preceded by a massive mental overhaul of the nation is not self-standingly obvious.” If antiracist campaigners really had a political program, McWhorter argued, “it would focus much more readily on making change from the grassroots on up; the psychological cleansing would feel like a prelude cherished by a few but best gotten past as quickly as possible.”

McWhorter criticized the “focus on individual psychology as opposed to national social and political structures.” Rustin shared this view: “It is institutions—social, political, and economic institutions—which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.” Reforming institutions requires cooperation from many different segments of society, and high-decibel accusations of racism aren’t the way to build these coalitions. Rustin urged his political allies to remain focused on the real threat rather than lecturing liberals about their racism: “…the objective fact is that [Democratic Senator for Mississippi, James] Eastland and Goldwater are the main enemies—they and the opponents of civil rights, of the war on poverty, of medicare, of social security, of federal aid to education, of unions, and so forth.” The same argument applies today: the main enemies are Trumpist Republicans who want to ban books in public schools and prevent black Georgians from voting. Crowds of kneeling liberals aren’t going to stop these people—if anything, they’ll empower the most demagogic forces on the Right by allowing those forces to present all their opponents as bizarre and extreme.

Finally, Rustin was a relentless critic of the kind of identity politics that sought to divide rather than unify. “If there is one common theme uniting the various demands for Black Power,” Rustin wrote in a 1970 essay, “it is simply that blacks must be guided in their actions by a consciousness of themselves as a separate race.” This led to calls for a distinct black economy, the establishment and maintenance of autonomous black communities, and black educational programs. Rustin was critical of all these initiatives, arguing that they were more focused on “emotional release” than “economic and political advancement.” Consider his criticism of autonomous communities (a priority for the Movement for Black Lives today): “…in a complex technological society there is no such thing as an autonomous community within a large metropolitan area. Neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods, will remain dependent upon outside suppliers for manufactured goods, transportation, utilities, and other services.”

Rustin observed that the case for community control amounted to little more than a “demand for a change in the racial composition of the personnel who administer community institutions”—a demand less concerned with the policies these administrators enacted than with the color of their skin. When Rustin witnessed the emergence of radical black studies programs at universities, he expressed a similar concern—that “faculty members will be chosen on the basis of race, ideological purity, and political commitment—not academic competence.” This concern is just as relevant today, if not more so. In July 2020 (months after Floyd was killed), 300 Princeton faculty sent administrators a list of demands which included “immediately and exponentially … hiring more faculty of color,” the elevation of “more faculty of color to prominent leadership positions within divisions and across the University,” and the creation of a “committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”

Rustin wasn’t just suspicious of certain trends within black studies programs—he also opposed any Affirmative Action policies that imposed racial quotas. While Rustin acknowledged that the demand for “larger university enrollment of minority students” is “entirely legitimate,” he was always suspicious of preferential treatment in place of fundamental social, educational, and economic changes that would increase the number of black students and skilled workers naturally. This is why he opposed reparations, which he derided as a “ridiculous idea” and an insult to black Americans: “I don’t believe that any black man in this country wants to be given a thing—just the opportunity to work, to work and take care of his family.” Because the call for reparations is a “purely racial demand,” he argued, “its effect must be to isolate blacks from the white poor with whom they have common economic interests.”

A central theme of Rustin’s work in the late 1960s and ’70s was that one period of the fight for equality in the United States had ended and another had begun. In the first period, which culminated in the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black Americans fought against discriminatory laws and policies which prevented them from voting, sending their children to certain schools, and using public services. In the second period, he argued, “…we are dealing with practically no fundamental question in the minds of Negroes which are Negro problems. For what Negroes are now interested in is decent housing, decent jobs, decent education, and the right of participation in decision-making. They are the four great demands of the Negro people today. But those demands are the result of basic contradictions in our society, and not demands to brutalize the Negro.”

Rustin didn’t say that racism had disappeared—he said the removal of the major legal barriers to racial equality meant black Americans had to focus their activism on issues that blighted the entire society: poverty, health and educational disparities, etc. But this didn’t mean he suddenly ignored the unique problems faced by black Americans: “It is not that I do not know that Negroes are most brutalized by poverty, for they are. But I also know that 67 percent of the poor are white.” Despite Rustin’s tactical reasons for appealing to all Americans, his opposition to racial tribalism went deeper than that: “No economic or social order has ever been developed on the basis of color,” he said. If the most prominent campaigners for racial equality in the United States today could rediscover the powerful ethical and practical implications of this argument, they would take a significant step from protest to politics.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of 'How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment' (Pitchstone Publishing, 2023)

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