On the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in light of the trauma Israel is experiencing and the repercussions that are echoing around the world, I have been thinking about my own background and the teachings of some of my role models.
I was named after Bayard Rustin, an African-American civil rights leader who deserves a larger role in American history books (and is finally getting some recognition from a Netflix series and an Oscar nomination). A tireless and dedicated activist, Rustin taught Martin Luther King, Jr. about non-violence, organizing Freedom Rides and conferences to support Dr. King’s struggle against racism and discrimination.
Growing up as Charles Rustin Holzer (aka Rusty), meant that my childhood was filled with lessons from the greats of the Civil Rights Movement. As I grew, I tried to emulate these heroes. A picture of Dr. King hung on the wall of my college dorm room, and I wrote my favorite of their quotes in the margins of my notebooks, so that when I was in need of inspiration, I was reminded that:
“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” (MLK, Jr.)
And, “If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end.” (Bayard Rustin).
As I learned more about my namesake and his role in the Civil Rights Movement, I was fascinated by the deep respect that both Rustin and King had for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
King famously stated:
The whole world must see that Israel must exist, and has the right to exist, and is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.
He also said, “I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”
He understood that antisemitism was an unacceptable cancer that could ravage society if left unchecked: “If my Jewish brothers and sisters said to me amid antisemitism anywhere, ‘we don’t need your support, we have enough power to deal with this problem ourselves,’ I would still take a stand against antisemitism because it’s wrong, it’s unjust, and it’s evil.”
Rustin echoed these sentiments, saying
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.
But these brave warriors did not just offer platitudes. In 1970, Rustin risked the disapproval of his colleagues within the non-violence movement when he publicly called for the U.S. to send military jets to Israel to aid in their fight against the surrounding Arab states.
As the Executive Director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, he placed a full-page ad in the New York Times entitled, An Appeal By Black Americans for United States Support to Israel. The ad lauded Israel for her achievements in the social and economic sectors, and encouraged the United States to “take steps to help guarantee Israels’ right to exist”. Rustin was compelled to fight on behalf of Israel.
Rustin saw the parallels between Jews and the Black community and their quest for equality. He became a champion of Soviet Jewry, helping to write legislation that encouraged better treatment of Jews in the USSR, chairing the Ad hoc Commission on Rights of Soviet Jews, and writing articles, and attending rallies in support of freeing Soviet Jewry.
Unfortunately, just decades later, much of the world has chosen to ignore the fact that the founding fathers of the Civil Rights Movement loved the Jewish people and their tenacious pursuit of peace.
It has become convenient and fashionable for people to forget that Dr. King and Rustin saw the State of Israel as a symbol of hope and justice and democracy.
In a most prescient manner, Rustin forewarned that the hateful, violent tactics of the PLO might appeal to members of the Black community. He reminded them that Mr. Luther King, Jr.,
Never once in the long history of the civil rights struggles countenanced violence or terrorism… The P.L.O., however, espouses the opposites of all these principles. … Considering this record, I fear that individuals who see similarities between our struggle and the terror campaign of the P.L.O. are ignoring or twisting the facts.
Although he was deeply committed to the principles of non-violence, Rustin understood that in the case of Israel versus her enemies, picking up arms in defense of justice, morality, and democracy was precisely what the situation demanded. I believe that honoring my namesake demands that I not be silent after the events of October 7th.