One of the most important leaders of the civil-rights movement, Bayard Rustin was a consistent advocate for Israel and a determined opponent of anti-Semitism.
Born in West Chester, Pa., Rustin moved to Harlem in his early 20s. There, in 1941, he helped organize the first “March on Washington.” The following year, he was arrested, beaten and jailed when he refused to sit at the back of a bus headed south. In 1947, he led a first Freedom Ride. Arrested once more, he served time on a chain gang.
In 1953, Rustin helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Assisting Martin Luther King Jr. in his rise within the group, Rustin tutored him about Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolent resistance. Credited as one of the two main organizers of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963, Rustin stood alongside King when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“An unflagging supporter of Zionism” in the words of historian Randall Kennedy, Rustin saw his support for Israel as an extension of his commitment to democracy and civil rights. As Rustin put it, “since Israel is a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction, those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence.”
He was particularly antagonistic to the anti-Semitism displayed by some black nationalists in 1968 during New York’s teacher strike. Rustin was vociferous in criticizing those black leaders who showed sympathy for the PLO, a group that he described as “an organization committed to racism, terrorism and authoritarianism.” A longtime contributor to Commentary magazine, Rustin further observed that autocratic Middle Eastern regimes promoted Israel-hatred so that they didn’t have to “liberate their people from poverty and misery.”
In 1970, Rustin called for the United States to sell fighter jets to Israel. Earlier, in 1966, he had served as the chair of the Ad Hoc Commission on the Rights of Soviet Jews. This was to be a passionate cause for him during the last two decades of his life, when he worked for Soviet Jewry alongside Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson.
This fight would play a pivotal role in bringing to Israel 1 million Russian-Jewish refugees.