Back From 'Bama
by Bayard Rustin

Originally published in WRL News, May-June, 1956

See Montgomery Bus Boycott for background & more information.
See also Montgomery Bus Boycott for web links.

[Founded in 1923, the War Resisters League (WRL) was a pacifist, anti-war, pro-civil liberties organization. In the 1950s, it was a leading advocate of nonviolent strategies for addressing social issues, and it played an important role in the struggle for racial justice. The "civil defense protest" referred to in the sidebar was one of a series of nonviolent actions against the militarization of society and the illusion that civil defense provided protection in the event of nuclear war. Protesters distrupted civil defense drills and removed civil defense "bomb shelter" signs from public buildings.

At the time this article was published, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was holding strong in its 6th month, but there was no imminent victory in sight. The White Citizens Council, formed two years earlier, a month after the Brown v Board of Education school desegregation ruling, was spreading rapidly across the South. The Citizens Council fomented racial hatred against Blacks, organized white resistance to desegregation efforts and Black voter-registration, and engaged in economic terrorism against Blacks (and whites) who supported the Freedom Movement.

Since my return from Alabama, we have been flooded with requests for speaking engagements in churches, colleges and labor groups. Reactions to the Montgomery protest have been varied and have provided an excellent framework for discussing pacifism and the philosophy and tactics of nonviolence.

Many people have been amazed that southern Negroes, faced with bombing, police brutality and murder could take so successfully to nonviolence. People like to excuse themselves from examining the power of such a technique by convincing themselves that it can be effective only against the "gentlemanly and civilized." British.

Yet Gandhi, himself, would not have been surprised by developments in the deep south today. In his last interview with Dr. Howard Thurman, WRL member who visited him several years before his death, Gandhi said he looked to the American Negro to use nonviolence and to use it well. "They have much to teach the world," he concluded.

The question period following my talks reveals the degree of confusion which prevails concerning the role of the NAACP in the north as well as the south. Many people equate the NAACP with the White Citizens Councils and refer to both as "dangerous extremes." An increasing number of northerners call for "a middle course — something not so extreme."

However, when pressed, they often concede intellectually that no such ground exists. In fact, the only concrete proposal they make is that the NAACP and other Negro groups "not push for a while." That is to say, they ask Negroes to put up with injustice a little longer. The Negro is in no mood to consider this course. And the liberals naturally cannot reach the White Citizens Councils with pleas for moderation.

While, like other organizations, the NAACP is not perfect, it is the only organization with a potential mass appeal among Negroes. Since its founding before World War I, it has done a magnificent job in trying to guarantee civil rights for Negroes. At present it is exploring whether or not nonviolence will become part of its official policy. This is important and timely since the Supreme Court's desegregation decision changes the emphasis in the Negroes' struggle for justice from the court to the community organization. The struggle in the south is not between the NAACP and the White Citizens Councils, it is between the forces of reaction on all fronts and those who stand for human dignity.

In an attempt to spotlight the current struggle for civil rights in the south, a giant rally of labor, church and civic groups is being planned for May 24 In Madison Square Garden. WRL staff members have been working on promotion of this rally — especially on campus.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at a meeting of 100 Negro leaders in Washington called together by A. Philip Randolph. I was a member of a panel on "The Use or Nonviolence in Our Struggle." The response was enthusiastic.

The conference set up a steering committee on strategy to meet the new race relations situation in the United States. Among other duties, this committee was instructed to explore the application of nonviolence in the south.


Rustin Barred Because of Civil Defense Case

Bayard Rustin, WRL secretary, was barred from addressing a pacifist group at Brooklyn College on May 9 because his conviction in last June's civil defense protest action is on appeal. He had been scheduled to speak on his experiences in Montgomery. Informing him of the cancellation, the secretary of the group explained that Brooklyn College does not permit speeches on campus by anyone whose criminal case is in the courts. The regulation was designed to keep Communists off campus. A. J. Muste of the Provisional Defense Committee, which is handling the civil defense case appeal, commented: "This is another instance of how attempts to suppress one set of ideas invariably extend to suppress others."

Copyright © Bayard Rustin, 1956.

Copyright ©