Monday, January 19, 2009

Remembering Bayard Rustin on Martin Luther King Day

MLK giving the I have a dream speech with Bayard Rustin just behind him in the photo
As I was going home last Friday, NPR played a clip from a talk given by Martin Luther King, Jr., when he visited India in 1959 to learn first-hand about the work of Mahatma Gandhi. The recording was recently discovered as India prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of King's visit.

I didn't know that King visited India, but I had heard that another civil rights organizer, Bayard Rustin, had been there earlier, and had greatly influenced King's thinking about nonviolence. An old friend recently pointed me in the direction of a documentary about Rustin, Brother Outsider, and also an article about him.

While I have yet to see the documentary, I did appreciate the article. The writer, Chris Lombardi, said:

Rustin traveled to India, hoping to meet Mahatma Gandhi and learn about Gandhi’s principles of active nonviolent resistance: not passivity, not simple refusal to go to war, but throwing one’s body in the machinery of war and oppression. “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” he wrote upon his return. “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
Rustin's concept of nonviolence as tucking your body into the gears of the system so that they can no longer turn is a far cry from how nonviolent resistance seems to be thought of today, for the most part. So often, it seems more of a token resistance -- sit down until you're arrested and carted away in a bus. Of course, I think the government has gotten better at eliminating opportunities for a more engaged resistance: invoking the spectre of terrorism as a reason to keep citizens from getting close to the gears.

I can't help wondering, though, what Rustin would be doing in our present circumstances?

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