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The real reason to celebrate Bayard Rustin

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By Paul Kengor
Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright visited Pittsburgh last week. Yes, the very same ranting and raving, raging Bill Clinton-bashing, blaspheming preacher who loudly declared that God had damned America.

Those Wright moments came during the period in which the current president of the United States devotedly attended Wright's church for two decades. President Obama not only came to Christianity through Wright but Wright married Barack and Michelle, baptized their children and inspired the title of Obama's second memoir. He was a mentor to Obama.

All of that is intriguing enough but I was fascinated by the program that brought Wright to town. It is the new Bayard Rustin Lecture Series.

Rustin was likewise an intriguing individual. He became a communist in the 1930s, drawn by the Communist Party's exploitation of the Scottsboro case, a horrible racial injustice that communists transformed into a campaign to recruit black Americans to the Soviet cause. Unfortunately, they had some success among “progressive” black Americans. Rustin was one of them, as was Frank Marshall Davis.

Davis was another Obama mentor — in Hawaii, before the Wright years. I would be shocked if Davis, a member of Communist Party USA, and Rustin never interacted amid their fellow travels.

Rustin joined the Young Communist League, headed by prominent black American communists Henry Winston and Angelo Herndon, both of whom Davis knew well.

But at one point in World War II, Rustin parted with his comrades. He ultimately fully rejected communism — something that Davis, Obama's mentor, never did.

Rustin became an anti-communist liberal. As just one example, ignored by liberal biographers only interested in his civil-rights work and sexual orientation, Rustin wrote a superb piece for Commentary magazine in October 1977 — “Africa, Soviet Imperialism, and the Retreat of American Power.” He criticized not just Soviet adventurism but the naïveté of the West, American liberals, and the Carter administration and its U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young. He blasted the policy of détente pursued by Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. Rustin lamented the “retreat of American power” when America alone was “capable of deterring Soviet expansion.”

At the time of Rustin's death in 1987, President Ronald Reagan called Rustin a man of “moral courage” and “a great leader in the struggle for civil rights … and for human rights throughout the world.”

Today, Rustin is remembered not for calling out the Soviets but for his work on civil and gay rights, his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.

And now, Pittsburgh has a lecture series named for him. I suggest the organizers consider some thoughtful black Americans who agreed with Rustin on foreign policy, the Cold War, détente. Perhaps Thomas Sowell, Condi Rice, Walter Williams, our own Kiron Skinner at Carnegie Mellon. To properly honor Bayard Rustin, let's not simply bring in leftist America-bashers like Jeremiah Wright.

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama‘s Mentor” and “Dupes: How America‘s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.” His column appears the first Sunday of each month.

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