Human Rights: The Central Issue of Our Time

Taken from remarks by Bayard Rustin on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Friends Seminary, February 10, 1986, New York, N. Y.

I purposely chose this topic because I felt that it would help you to think, “How can a sane person say that how we treat each other is more serious than the possible elimination of humankind altogether?” Nevertheless, that is a conviction I hold, and I would like you to think along with me for a while.

The concept of human rights springs from a simple fact that the Jews were the first to understand: there is only one God. It is ironic that so much pain has been visited upon the Jewish people, who were the discoverers of that most sacred notion. The Jews said that because there’s only one God, there can be only one human family. God did not create two people. God created one. The second person was an integral part of the first one, not another creature. Eve was already a part of Adam at his creation. Secondly, if there’s only one God and only one humanity, then we must have absolute respect for every other human being. If I say the people in this front row are like that but I am like this, I have broken the human cycle. And once that cycle is broken, there is nothing that I will not do to those people. For example, when Hitler said that the Jews are like that but we are like this, he could burn millions of them; he could deny them every right that other people had.

The we/they concept is contrary to the concept of one humanity and, therefore, to the concept of human rights. The concept of human rights means that if I harm anyone, I am attacking myself at the same time. When I preach hatred against an Italian or a Jew or a Pole, I am also digging my own grave. That is because hatred makes it possible for people to do the same thing to me. My objective must be to eliminate hatred.

If one is to practice humanity, one must recognize the law of ends and means. The law says, “I get in the end not what I seek to get, but an accumulation of all the things I do to reach that end.” If I lie for a good cause, I may or may not get the good cause, but I will certainly be a liar. I may or may not free all the black people on earth, but, as Martin Luther King said, if I brutalize a single hair on the head of one white person, then I am creating a situation where the same thing can be done to me.

Furthermore, without democracy there cannot be human rights. Ultimately human rights have to do with one simple factor: do I give you the right of self determination and self-expression? I may not like what you do, it may appear to be very harmful, but my objective must not be to punish you for that. My objective must be to reveal to you that something higher is involved.

As an illustration, we all would agree that blacks in South Africa are treated very badly. But, when South Africa is discussed, how many times do you hear talk about saving the white people in South Africa from their own selfdestruction? Unless we begin with the purpose of liberating both blacks and whites in South Africa, we are talking about black superiority, not about human rights. That’s a very hard thing for me to say as a black, but it must be said because it is true.

The gravest danger to human rights now is selective morality-a double standard. Our language has been ruined by double standards. What used to be terrorists are now “freedom fighters.” Authoritarians such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines call themselves “liberators.” Zionism, a two-thousand year old yearning of the Jews not to be kicked from pillar to post, is called “racism” by Arabs. Totalitarian communism is now called “socialism.” But the socialism Norman Thomas stood for has nothing to do with totalitarian communism. Some dictatorships are now referred to as “peoples’ democracies.” How would you like to live in a “peoples’ democracy”? Come back and tell me if you liked it!

American policy and the policy of every individual must not be a political analysis of human rights. We have to be against terrorism, whether it is a black gang in Chicago, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the PLO, or the IRA, or the Red Brigade, or anybody else who plays that game. Not only must we use the proper words but we must be prepared to address ourselves properly, universally, and equally to all parts. It is wrong for Americans to talk about the problems in the Soviet Union and Poland and Afghanistan without talking about our responsibilities for the injustices in the Philippines and El Salvador. If we do not take that view, then we are being partisan.

Further, we must avoid the false distinction between authoritarians and totalitarians. I am an old friend of Jeane Kirkpatrick, but I must disagree with her when she says human rights are less endangered under authoritarians than under totalitarians. Just ask yourself a question: would you rather be in jail for twenty years under an authoritarian or a totalitarian government? Anyone who can make that distinction is revealed as a fool or a liar.

If the majority of the people in the world adhered to the concept of human rights, violence and war would be impossible. At the center of violence in any form is the right to brutalize people, to deny their human rights. Regimes that deny human rights behave recklessly, because the people do not have enough freedom to protest. You can only protest where there are human rights. We did not wait until the government decided the war in Vietnam was wrong. The people of the United States said, ” Because we have freedom and human rights we can stop that war,” and they did. No people can stop a war in a totalitarian nation, because they do not have human rights.

Trust is another connection between war and human rights. If a nation does not trust and respect its own citizens, people in other nations cannot trust that government. Therefore, if we don’t trust the Russians, if they don’t trust us, we’ll never come to any agreement.

Consider why people go to war. They go to war for religion, for greed, for territory, for racial reasons, for fear, and in defense of their values. In a democracy the majority of people will not go to war for most of those reasons. Our great temptation is to use violence in defense of justice. We get into wars to stop them from doing that to those people. Many thousands of people who did not want war finally came into World War II because they argued that nobody should be treated the way Hitler treated people in Germany.

When Gandhi was asked, ”Is war ever justified?” he said that yes, war and violence are sometimes justified. He said that if something unjust is coming toward you, there are three ways to deal with it. One, you can use violence against the undemocratic force. Two, you can use nonviolence as Gandhi and Martin Luther King did. The third possibility is cowardice, or to simply let the- aggressor get away with it. To Gandhi the most immoral response is cowardice, doing nothing. The most noble is to fight nonviolently. But, if you cannot do it nonviolently it is better to use violence because nothing is more destructive to the human condition than cowardice. However, Gandhi added, you cannot use violence, justified or unjustified, without making the human condition worse, even though it may seem to be improved.

Another problem is that most of the devilment in this world is caused because people of good will are indifferent. I remember, as a young man, reading in the New York Times about Jews coming here from Germany to warn us about what Hitler was doing. These refugees were denounced as war mongers who were trying to stir up the American people to fight Germany. We were indifferent. A ship called the St. Louis left Germany with 700 Jews on it. They came to the United States, and for three weeks they waited off the coast near Miami. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the American people said that they could not come into the United States. They had to go back to Germany, and three-fourths of them died in concentration camps.

Martin Niemoller, head of the largest church in Germany in Hitler’s time, summed up our responsibility to protect human rights with this story:

I was living in Germany and I did not like Hitler but I did not do much about it. Hitler came for the Jews and I said, ” I am not a Jew,” and I didn’t do anything to help them. Then Hitler came for the Communists and I said, “I am not a Communist,” and I did nothing to help them. Then Hitler came for the labor leaders and I said, “I am not a labor leader,” and I turned my back. Then they came for the intellectuals and the artists. I said, “I am not an intellectual nor an artist,” and I turned my back again. Then one night I heard the sirens wail; I heard the truck turn into my street; I heard the storm troopers pounding up the stairs; I heard them bang on my door. I started to scream, “Help me,” but I knew, through my own fault, there was nobody left to hear me.

The Need for Democracy

After his talk, Bayard Rustin offered to answer questions from students. Here are parts of some of his answers.

I hope that I would be a conscientious objector if I were called upon today, but I’m not sure. The phenomenon of Hitler, which I did not know about when I became a conscientious objector, must be weighed now that I know it. Secondly, I hope that I might become a conscientious objector because of what I told you about Gandhi. The use of violence in eliminating a danger very often only complicates that danger down the road. That is the reason I have great respect for people who would be conscientious objectors.

When people talk about South Africa, if they are really talking about getting rid of apartheid, I must say that my objective, having been to South Africa three times, is not to get rid of apartheid. That is too narrow; it is, in fact, racist. My objective is to establish democracy. No matter who rules South Africa, if there is no democracy there will be some form of apartheid, if not for blacks, then for whites.

So, finally, we judge people the way my mother wanted me judged: not where I stood but in what direction I was going. In women’s rights, the United States is going in a good direction; in the rights of homosexuals, we are going in a better direction; in treatment of young offenders, we are going in a better direction; in dropping some of the monsters we have been supporting overseas, we are going in a better direction; in the treatment of black people, we are going in a better direction. I would not want to leave you feeling all is well. You must judge every situation the way you judge yourself: not where do you stand but are you making an effort to move in the right direction?

The question of whether or not to disinvest in South Africa is too simple. The question should be, “Are there things that are helping to bring democracy and get rid of apartheid that I should support?” Many U.S. businesses in South Africa are working on the two most important things for democracy in South Africa: the education and training of black people. One day blacks will have political power, but they will not have democracy if they are untrained. You can’t have democracy unless there are churches, schools, lawyers, and doctors to support the growth of democracy. I want to support those U.S. institutions which are giving blacks training and equal wages. So, I am for selective disinvestment. My yardstick is, ” Does it improve the lot of people there?”

Update, August 2013

In August 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, with the following citation:

Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.

Readers can also learn more about Rustin in Gay, Black, and Quaker: History Catches Up with Bayard Rustin, by Stephen W. Angell and Leigh Eason in Religion Dispatches.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin is president of the A. Philip Randolph Educational Fund. He has been active for over 50 years in civil rights and human rights causes, most notably as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. Bayard Rustin is a member of Fifteenth Street (N.Y.) Meeting.  

3 thoughts on “Human Rights: The Central Issue of Our Time

  1. Friends might well celebrate the inclusion of Rustin among those receiving Presidential Medals of Freedom; he deserved it. Have there been others?

    But we should note at least three omissions from the presidential citation before our hero, like King, gets too sanitized: 1) Rustin was an active organizer for the Communist Party in upstate New York in the 1930s, 2) he resisted the draft during World War II and served time in a federal prison for doing so, and 3) toward the end of his life, he lent support to LBJ’s Vietnam War. In short, he was a complex man who certainly doesn’t need to be white-washed.

    I can understand the current president omitting these details from Rustin’s career. It’s harder to understand how his fellow Friends could co so.

  2. For anyone reading this in the DC area: On Aug 25 at Friends Meeting of Washington there will be an event about Bayard Rustin. Sorry I don’t have more detail, but the FMW website is sure to.

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