Resurrection Of A Freedom Fighter

 Byard and MLK in Montgomery 1956

A Timely Portrait of A Master Organizer

Last night I saw a documentary film on the life of the Byard Rustin, at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem. “Brother Outsider,” an independently produced project by filmmakers Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates, is a excellent film on one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century.  This critical slice of recent American history  has garnered numerous awards and is  widely acclaimed by film critics. The LA Times calls it “Persuasive” and the Wall Street Journal calls it “Brilliant.”

To these accolades I would add Timely!  For me the film is like a revelation from on high, because it succinctly makes all of the points I have been trying so desperately to make in my commentaries on what the budding Occupy Wall Street movement must do in order to achieve its laudable but highly ambitious goals.

The quintessential organizer, Byard was little known nor long remembered by the general public; he was deliberately kept in the background because he was openly gay and the FBI – whose leader J. Edgar Hoover was an omnivorous pervert – sought to use Bayard’s sexual preference to smear the movement with the charge of moral turpitude.  But I would be dishonest if I failed to concede that rampant homophobia in the black community also played a critical role in Bayard’s obscure public profile.  Yet Byard remains a legendary figure among movement people who struggled to make America a more humane and civilized society in the twentieth century.

As Michael Thelwell – an Emeritus Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, who was one of SNCC’s most effective organizers during the 1960’s – makes clear in the film: Bayard tutored them all!  In the struggles for peace, racial equality and economic justice, Bayard strides like a colossus across twentieth century America.

A man of impressive personal qualities – Tall dark and handsome, spell binding orator, gifted singer, competent instrumentalist, impressive athlete and fearless intellectual  – Byard introduced Martin Luther King to the Gandhian philosophy of non-violent passive resistance.   And he personally tutored Dr. King in its methods during the Montgomery Bus Boycott – which Bayard organized and directed from a secret hideout.

Bayard was also the principal organizer of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event which was the catalyst that spurred the passage of the historic Omnibus Civil Rights Bill of 1964, an event that transformed America!  The anti-Wall Street rebellion is in desperate need of such a leader, and through the magic of media they can have him at his best!!!

The role of media in the development of mass transformative movements is critical, because this is how the ideology, strategy and tactics devised by the leadership are conveyed to the masses.  This is clearly demonstrated in the way in which young dissidents have employed the new social media, made possible by the emergence of the Internet, to create a species of mass movements unlike anything we have seen before.

However as we closely observe this phenomenon it is becoming clear that these movements – from Taquir Square in Egypt which ignited the Arab Spring, to the Occupy Wall Street movement which is an extension of the events in Taquir Square that has spread like wildfire around the world to faraway places like Melbourne Australia and Auckland New Zealand, are spontaneous combustions that bear only a superficial relationship to historical movements that have succeeded in seizing power and actually transforming societies.

It is becoming increasingly clear that bypassing the stages of development which these movements that succeeded in taking power evolved through, the OWS movement is sorely lacking a critical element: A competent leadership with clearly defined goals and a strategy for achieving them.  Hence they will have to educate themselves by other means and do so quickly….alas they have managed to get the masses out into the streets but they have no coherent program to guide their actions.  They are all amped up with nowhere to go!  Fortunately, salvation is at hand.  And if the movement “leaders” reach out grab it this documentary will prove a gift that keeps on giving.

It is conventional wisdom among educational theorist that audio visual media is the most effective of all teaching tools because we remember more of what we see and hear simultaneously than what they see or hear separately. That’s why the documentary film is such a powerful tool for mass education, or indoctrination.  The first person to demonstrate the power of this form was the great German cinematographer Leni Reifensthal.

When the riddle of how the Nazi’s beguiled the German people, the most highly educated in the world, and convinced them that it was a good idea to elect an Austrian corporal with no experience in government to the Chancellorship of Germany, an event that resulted in the death of 50 million people around the world, Reifensthal’s film “Triumph of the Will” is cited as a major factor.  Her work was considered so important in the effort to win the hearts and minds of the German people for Der Fhuerer, that she was barred from ever making films again after the Nazi defeat.

The present film, “Brother Outsider” has all the ingredients that OWS leaders need to shape this rag-tag rebellion into the kind of effective movement that can transform American economic relations – i.e. the relationship between classes – as radically as the Civil rights movement transformed race relations a half century ago.  OWS organizers should pay special attention to what Bayard has to say about building effective organizations without recourse to violence, and watch film clips of him operating in real time in the heat of struggle.

Bayard Droppin Science at the Great March on Washington! 

He succintly laid out the goals of the movement 

They should pay especial attention to how he formulates complex demands into clear simple slogans that can be easily communicated to the masses and offer a path to negotiation for the reigning princes and powers.  Byard is dropping real science here…not meaningless ideological bromides!!!   His axioms have been tested in the laboratory of actual struggles and produced the desired results: Which is how you test if your science is real or pseudo-science!

One of the most important things to be learned from the critical lessons conveyed in this film is how crazy the so-called “revolutionaries” actually were.  Viewed in retrospect it is embarassing; especially since I was one of them.  Although many of these firebrands are celebrated by untutored activists today,  it is undeniable that all serious gains won by the Civil rights movement came to a screeching halt once the “black revolutionaries” siezed the spotlight  It was good street theater but it did not advance the movement .  Alas, the gun totin antics and militant rhetoric rhetoric of the “revolutionaries,” black and white, moved most of the country to the right and helped elect Richard Nixon!

If the OWS leadership pays close attention and heed Bayard’s instructions, this master organizer and movement tactician will teach them invaluable lessons that will help them avoid dangerous pitfalls and succeed in achieving real victories. By virtue of the alchemy of the internet, which is driving this world wide revolt against the plutocrats, Brother Outsider can become as effective a weapon of carefully directed mass mobilization and political education for the anti-wall Street movement, as Triumph of the Will was for the Nazi’s!  And that would be a very good thing!


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 31, 2011

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