On Protest and Politics and Pride

In honor of Pride Month, I thought I would use this post to talk about and engage the ideas of Bayard Rustin, someone I consider to be a national gay icon as well as a personal hero.

It would be hard to overstate Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, yet his work has often been overshadowed and pushed to the margins because of his sexuality.  He is most famous for his work organizing the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, yet Rustin’s influence on the civil rights movement goes far beyond this isolated event.  Rustin was instrumental in teaching King about the true nature of Ghandian non-violent principles, thus helping to give shape to the entire civil rights movement.  He was also pivotal in encouraging the civil rights movement to evolve beyond only matters of race by keeping in focus the deep-seated connection between enduring racism, poverty, and economic justice.

In one of his most well known articles, Rustin argues that the civil rights movement must evolve from a movement of protest to one of politics.  The article, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” calls on those involved with the movement to see their work developing beyond the sit-ins, freedom rides, and other tactics of direct-action and moving toward the possibilities of political organizing in continuing the work of creating systems of justice and equality.

Rustin certainly does not deny the value of the work done during what he refers to as the “classical” phase of the civil rights movement, yet he questions the value in winning access to lunch counters and other public accommodations that most African-Americans had no money to access anyway.  He points out the danger in thinking that the removal of barriers that the Civil Rights Act represented was enough to guarantee the ability of the African-American community to flourish because de facto segregation still maintained economic barriers for many African-Americans.  This reality, according to Rustin, necessitated a move towards political organizing as a means of collectively addressing unjust systems.

Rustin puts forth a vision for political action that he insists gets at the heart of what it means for the civil rights movement to become truly revolutionary.  He writes, “The term ‘revolutionary,’ as I am using it, does not connote violence; it refers to the qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions, more or less rapidly, to the point where the social and economic structure which they comprised can no longer be said to be the same.” What Rustin is trying to say is that the civil rights movement was revolutionarily at its best in the ways that it not only advanced the causes of the African-Americans, but challenged entire systems of injustice and inspired diverse groups of people to become involved in working for the common good.

Even though Rustin did not become a champion of gay rights until much later in life, I found myself thinking of him and this article as I attended the Columbus Pride Festival last weekend.  The protests at Stonewall and beyond have made room for the gay pride parades and festivals around the country as a means of continued protest against the onslaught of those who would deny not only the civil rights of gays but also their right to exist publicly.  These expressions of pride continue to be public forms of nonviolent protest against the factions of American society that would force the LGBTQ community back in the closet.  These protests have also begun to pave the way for a growing number of political victories for LGBTQ people, and Rustin’s words about the evolution of the civil rights movement from protest to politics contain lessons for this new wave of civil rights.

The first lesson to take away from Rustin’s article is that the movement towards political engagement necessitates a reliance on allies as a means of creating a broadly based political majority.  LGBTQ people cannot expect to enact change on their own.  Moreover, they must also work toward expanding beyond the notion that LGBTQ rights are drawn distinctly down either political party lines or the religious/secular divide.

A second lesson to apply from Rustin’s article is that true change requires the reconstitution of systems and not just the transformation of people’s hearts.  While both are important, the move toward politics must never be encumbered with the unreal expectation that all people will come to agreement. Enhancing the rights of the LGBTQ community through political action is a means of creating a more just society by ensuring that the structures and systems that make up that society are geared toward justice and equality for all people.

While these are important points to take away from Rustin’s work, I believe there is also a danger in reading “From Protest to Politics” as a prescriptive progression of social movements that calls for an abandonment of the work accomplished through protest.  We should not abandon the parades or pack up our flags simply because we have won a few political victories.  The reality of deep-seated resentment toward LGBTQ people means that there is an ongoing need for public displays of protest that refuse to allow the lives of LGBTQ people to be silenced.

At the same time, we should also be conscious of those left behind by political victories.  Rustin was criticized for his move toward politics because it caused him to rely on compromise.  In a similar way, I have also seen “T” and “Q” dropped from non-discrimination policies as a compromise with fear-mongering opposition groups.  The growing victories in marriage equality are important steps but also may be creating a slightly expanded hegemonic notion of normalcy that can leave transgendered and queer people behind.

In 1986, Rustin declared that gay people were “the new barometer of social change.”  We have certainly come a long way since then, yet as the movement for gay rights begins to move further from protest to politics, we should never forget the meaning of pride that has sustained us along the way.

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