A Parable

In 1948, Congress was working on a bill to reinstate the draft.  At first, there was a proposal to introduce Universal Military Training.  New York pacifists, including A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin (who had been raised a Quaker), mobilized to oppose mandatory military service.  They allied themselves with A. Philip Randolph, who had a different object in mind: the desegregation of the US military.  Randolph found a Republican ally, Grant Reynolds, an African-American who held office in Governor Thomas Dewey’s administration in New York.  During Congressional hearings on the proposed draft law, Randolph told members of Congress that there would be massive non-compliance among blacks if the military was not integrated.  Specifically, young black men would not register for the draft.

Randolph was no stranger to the power of threatened mass action.  In 1941, he told FDR there would be a march on Washington by blacks if the president did not issue an executive order against discrimination in federal hiring practices—and by contractors getting federal dollars.  At issue were the companies already producing war materials prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Roosevelt took the threat seriously, issued the order, and Randolph called off the march.

In 1948, the draft bill passed in June, and–for interesting and complicated reasons I will perhaps try to outline in a future post—Harry Truman issued his famous executive order desegregating the military in July.

Randolph immediately cancelled his call for non-compliance with the new draft law.  Muste and Rustin, true to their pacifist principles, broke with Randolph at this point.  They wanted to go ahead with resistance to the draft.

I am going to ruin this parable by explaining in terms undoubtedly too stark the four lessons I derive from it.

  1. There is always someone to your left.  No matter what course of action one proposes or undertakes, there will always be some who claim it is not radical enough.  The same is probably true on the right as well.  One’s commitment, one’s toughness, one’s willingness to go the full nine yards will always be called into question by someone, playing a game of one-upmanship, claiming to be truer to the cause, more principled, and more morally pure.

 

  1. Those in power will often (maybe always) over-estimate the strength and (most crucially) the unity of those they oppress. In truth, Randolph’s threat of massive non-compliance was mostly a bluff.  He had neither the standing with blacks across America or the organizational and communications wherewithal to have actually delivered a very substantial boycott.  But to white Congressmen and Harry Truman, people with just about no knowledge of blacks or black America, Randolph’s threat was credible.  We just had the same exact thing happen at UNC.  The grad students threatened a grade strike. Realistically, about 200 grad students at most (out of over 3000), would have participated.  But the administration thought of the grad students as a unified bloc, wildly overestimating the threat the proposed grade strike posed.  It almost makes you think that, to the powerful, all underlings look alike—in the old clichéd way that whites can’t tell Asians apart, or blacks for that matter.

 

  1. But this overestimation of cohesion among one’s enemies can go the other way as well. Corey Robin has been banging away on this theme since Trump’s election: the left consistently stands in awe and terror at the right’s power and effectiveness.  My post on Silent Sam places some hope in a schism in the North Carolina state Republican Party.  I must admit that here I am wary.  We (the left) keep looking for signs of fracture on the right, with stories of voters who are going to abandon Bush or Trump or whomever when they stand for re-election.  Just as we keep pointing to lines that Trump will cross that will lead congressional Republicans to throw him under the bus.  Of course, the opposite has been the case.  It is Democrats who are the squabbling, disunified party, while Republicans demonstrate again and again that they put party loyalty (and its benefit of retaining power) above all else.  This unity of American overlords is very impressive indeed.  Think back to the 2008 recession when the business men of Main Street were royally screwed by the frauds of Wall Street.  But they closed ranks despite their being fleeced.  SO: I can hope for weakness in the right’s ranks, but I ain’t holding my breath.

 

  1. To use a dubious, even hateful, metaphor: a loaded gun pointed in the enemy’s direction is 50x more powerful than a fired gun. Once the gun is fired, the worst you can do is now known.  And when that worst is a lot less than it was estimated as, you (the holder of the gun) have basically lost.  Much better to take that gun which was pointing at your foe and slowly put it back in a holster where it remains visible.  Power hinted at but not deployed is often your best weapon.  Randolph knew that.  Of course, when you undoubtedly have the power to win, there does come a time to grab the spoils, to achieve your objectives.  Again, the Republicans of the past eighteen years have shown us how that works.  They have been grabbing and grabbing, while they defy anyone to stop them.  But until you have done the “precinct work,” the hard slog of organizing and of counting (whipping) votes and participation, so that you know that you have at least a reasonable chance of winning, best not to bring your forces onto the field.  Feeble gestures just reinforce the arrogance of the foe.  (There are exceptions to everything.  Politics is a messy business, with no “laws” that determine outcomes.  The Easter 1916 rebels knew they would lose; their gambit was that martyrdom would galvanize a future success.  And they were not wrong, even if they couldn’t have scripted or predicted the English ineptitude that led to independence a mere five years later.)

 

Coda:

“On the first day for complying with the conscription law, Rustin and several placard-carrying pickets congregated outside a Harlem registration center shouting for men not to register.  Similar picket lines formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and a number of other cities.  Rustin wrote to Selma Platt in Kansas about ‘the terrific responses we got all over the East,’ with coverage by lots of radio stations and the daily press, and he was pleased that so far there was no evidence that the government was going to ‘crack down.’  But if federal district attorneys were laying low, the New York City police were not.  Rustin was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent fifteen days in jail.  By the time he was released in late September [1948], it was hard for him to deny the obvious: the combination of Truman’s executive order and Randolph’s public acceptance of it had taken out of Rustin’s resistance movement whatever small head of steam it had.

If the resistance movement was in reality dead, the harsh feelings were very much alive.  In mid-October, perturbed over some of the comments that Rustin and others had made about them, Randolph and Reynolds issued a stinging rebuttal accusing Rustin and Muste of using the military campaign as ‘a front for ulterior purposes’ and engaging in ‘unethical tactics.’  Rustin, they implied, was trying to snatch a defeat from victory.  The support for resistance was so weak, they claimed, that continuing the civil disobedience campaign would only have discredited the method.  ‘Gandhi in India and South Africa never engaged in mock heroics,’ they said.  Over the next several months, Muste [and others, but not Rustin] wrote back and forth with Randolph, trying to repair relationships and clarify their respective positions.  But there was no doubt that for a time, the ties between Randolph’s civil rights camp and the Gandhian pacifists were badly frayed.

As for Rustin, afterward he felt miserable about how he had behaved in the waning stages of the campaign.  ‘It was two years before I dared see Mr. Randolph again, after having done such a terrible thing,’ he recalled.  When he did finally visit Randolph to repair the breach, ‘I was so nervous I was shaking, waiting for his wrath to descend upon me.’ But Randolph had by then put the conflict behind him and was happy to have their working relationship restored.

Whatever the personal feelings it aroused, the campaign to desegregate the military raised a host of issues about strategy, tactics, and goals.  When was compromise a choice with integrity, and when did it represent a betrayal of principle?  When did one seize the victory at hand, and when did one opt to keep the troops roused for victories not yet imminent?  How did two sets of activists and two social movements with overlapping but distinct goals work together with integrity in a coalition? Which was more important: an institutional change that led to equal treatment of black and white or a movement that placed peace and nonviolence above other goals?  Was the objective to create widening circles of resistance or to achieve a concrete reform that pointed in the direction of justice?  The tensions embedded in these questions would confront Rusting and other American radicals with painful dilemmas again and again in the next two decades.”

From John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin [NY: Free Press, 2003, 158-160.]

I highly recommend this superb biography of Rustin.  There is nothing even remotely as good written about Randolph, who remains a curiously unreachable subject, a very private man whom no writer, so far, seems to have gotten a handle on.  That he did not hold a grudge against Rustin is characteristic of Randolph, who seems to have been able to work with just about anyone he felt could advance the cause, and who showed an almost complete (and saintly in my opinion) indifference to his own standing in the movement.  He seems to have been just about as ego-less as it is possible for anyone to be—which may be why writing a biography of him has proved so difficult.

One thought on “A Parable

  1. thank you for the kind words about my book about Bayard Rustin – i loved studying his life – it has so much to teach us about the complexities of movements and organizing for change.

    Like

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