Friday, November 30, 2012

Rustin on compromise

I am preparing for my last session of American political thought this semester (!).  We will focus this week on the 1960s, examining texts of the New Left, civil rights and women's rights movements.  No wonder each week feels like a 2.5-hour whirlwind...

I'm enjoying the opportunity to read again through texts like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s moving "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  The power of his prose and the eloquence of his arguments is fresh and invigorating -- and deeply troubling -- every time I read it.  When in the course of this response to a plea from fellow clergymen for "moderation" he begins to write of what it's like to see the injustices and pain of segregation mirrored in the faces of your children, the personal torment of racism leaps from the page in a flurry of searing, semi-coloned clauses.  I'm sure it's the most masterful piece of prose ever smuggled out of a prison on the margins of old newspapers; I suspect it is one of the more masterful ever written in America on paper of any variety.

Today, though, I was especially intrigued by a sentence from a Commentary journal article written by civil rights leader and King ally Bayard Rustin in 1965.  Rustin was speaking to the structural problems remaining in American life even as de jure, or legalized, segregation crumbled to oblivion.  In contrast to some in the broader civil rights movement he favored alliances with other progressive groups, arguing that strength and, thus, political power would come only in numbers.  He cautioned against equating compromise with disavowal of core values.  His words rang true for me in a manner that transcends the context of his movement:

"...the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones."*

Our contemporary political leaders would do well to heed Rustin's words.

* Bayard Rustin, "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement," quoted in Isaac Kramnick and Theodore J. Lowi, American Political Thought: A Norton Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), p. 1337.

No comments: