The Dead End of Despair: Bayard Rustin, the 1968 New York School Crisis, and the Struggle for Racial Justice1

Article excerpt

"The loss of the dream Leaves nothing the same."

Langston Hughes, "Beale Street"

On April 6, 1968, Bayard Rustin received the United Federation of Teachers' (UFT) Dewey Award, an acknowledgment by the New York City union of the civil rights leader's incalculable contributions to progressive social activism. A founder of CORE and close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin had helped invent the Freedom Rides and had organized the celebrated 1963 March on Washington. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he was a leading American pacifist and shaped the theory and practice of nonviolence. As the protégé of black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Rustin also championed the victims of economic inequality. "More than anyone else in the postwar era," comments historian John D'Emilio, Rustin "was a bridge linking the African American freedom struggle, peace campaigns, and a socialist vision of economic democracy."2

As much as the United Federation of Teachers' John Dewey Award acknowledged Rustin's activism, it also signaled his estrangement from the movement he had done so much to create. In the late 1960s, New York's white teacher unionists and black activists were locked in a bitter struggle over control of the city's mammoth school system. Black demands for "community control" followed a long, well-organized and singularly unsuccessful campaign to integrate New York's schools, a campaign in which white liberal organizations, including the UFT, offered little support. As white resistance undermined black hopes of integrating education and achieving full participation in American life, black parents and activists turned to demanding power in running segregated schools. Whereas black activists saw community control as a prerequisite to democratizing school governance, eliminating racism in education, and opening school jobs to African Americans, teacher unionists saw it as a threat to due process, job security, and unbiased, quality education. The conflict between black activists and white teacher unionists placed New York at the epicenter of America's racial strife.

Despite Bayard Rustin's long record at the forefront of the African American freedom struggle, in 1968 he distanced himself from black activists. The call for community control both reflected and propelled the growing power of nationalist ideas and ideals among African Americans across the United States. Blacks would gain more by aligning themselves with the labor movement, Rustin countered, than from protests reflecting their racial identity and particular concerns. Amid the rancor of the school conflict, this dual commitment to economic democracy and the integrationist ideal led Rustin to sever ties with old allies and became one of the UFT's few prominent black supporters.3

Rustin's arguments, grounded in decades of struggle, failed to stem the growing appeal of nationalist calls for Black Power and selfdetermination among school activists and the declining hopes for school integration among activists and policymakers alike. And yet, no less than advocates of community control, Rustin addressed the quandary that confronted all black activists once America's commitment to racial equality had reached its limits and then begun to recede.

The argument in this essay that Rustin's estrangement from old allies reflected a profound shift in his politics and in the movements of the 1960s stands in contrast to much recent scholarship. Of late, historians have highlighted the essential continuity in Rustin's career and in the broader flow of recent American history. Their accounts have generated nuanced understandings of the interplay of integration and black nationalism in the African American struggle for social justice and of the enduring presence of both democratic ideals and racial inequality in American life.

John D'Emilio exemplifies the recent historiography. He portrays Rustin's politics as steadfastly grounded in "a bedrock optimism that the American political system was flexible and responsive enough to embrace change of revolutionary dimensions. …