Bayard Rustin’s Zimbabwe

A new film about American civil rights icon Bayard Rustin overlooks his later conservative turn, evident in his attitudes to anticolonial resistance in Africa.

Harare, 2003. Image credit Martin Addison via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

On November 17, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, released Rustin on Netflix. The film focuses on the efforts of the American civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), to organize the 1963 March on Washington (where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech). The film’s director, George C. Wolfe, has praised his subject as a “role model for what it means to … commit to democracy, commit to freedom.” Higher Ground’s website is similarly effusive, describing Rustin as “one of the greatest activists and organizers the world has ever known.” In 2013, Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This celebratory discourse has largely overshadowed Rustin’s conservative turn in the aftermath of the material depicted in the film. Rustin’s controversial relationship with the final stages of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle illustrates this shift. In the period from 1979-80, he visited the country three times, monitoring two of its elections. Rustin strongly opposed Zimbabwe’s two main liberation movements, favoring the more moderate black groups willing to collaborate with Rhodesia’s white settlers. 

Rustin had long been interested in African liberation movements. In the early 1950s, he co-founded Americans for South African Resistance, which evolved into the American Committee on Africa. In 1952, he traveled to West Africa and met Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe. A decade later, he attended a summit of the Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa in Addis Ababa. In Ethiopia, he met Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere and discussed plans for non-violent action to support Zambia’s independence. By the late 1970s however, Rustin’s foreign policy views had significantly diverged from his erstwhile colleagues. Kaunda and Nyerere, as leaders of Zambia and Tanzania, were some of the most active supporters of the Patriotic Front (PF), the uneasy alliance of Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe that led the assault on white dominance in colonial Zimbabwe.

However, just months before Mugabe’s wing of the PF ascended to power, Rustin wrote that international support for the PF was “morally unconscionable.” Instead, the New York-based civil rights activist backed a less radical political grouping led by Abel Muzorewa, a US-trained Methodist Bishop. Rustin saw the Bishop as “a resolute defender of black interests.” When Rustin issued that praise, Muzorewa had just been elected prime minister of the short-lived Republic of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, the territory’s first Black leader after nearly a century of colonial domination. However, the PF boycotted the election. Muzorewa’s government, widely seen as beholden to white settler interests, failed to obtain international recognition.  

The PF continued its armed struggle, leading to a new election with Mugabe’s and Nkomo’s engagement in early 1980. This contest resulted in Mugabe’s victory and finally ushered in Zimbabwe’s internationally recognized independence. Mugabe’s wing of the PF secured 57 parliamentary seats while Muzorewa’s United African National Council lagged far behind with just three. The outcome revealed the gravity of Rustin’s misjudgment in declaring that Muzorewa enjoyed “the broadest popular support among Zimbabweans.”

Rustin first visited the renegade British colony in early 1979, when the white prime minister, Ian Smith, held power. The visit is poorly documented in the historical record, but Rustin appears to have focused on establishing links with local trade unions. He returned that April to monitor the election that transferred power from Smith to Muzorewa on behalf of Freedom House, an American NGO focused on promoting human rights and democracy. Rustin co-chaired the nine-member delegation, which endorsed the electoral result and declared in its final report that “elections in most developing countries are less free.” Rustin personally expressed the same sentiment. Amid the poll, South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail published an interview where the civil rights leader announced, “the people were exceedingly well-behaved and there was even dancing and singing … up to now, these elections are much more orderly than we have in the States.”

He maintained this stance following its conclusion. In a TV broadcast on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Rustin reiterated that the election “was more fair” than any other he had observed in Africa. He defended Muzorewa and the other Black participants in the election against criticism from Andrew Young, a fellow guest and another former associate of Martin Luther King. Rustin charged Young, then US Ambassador to the UN, of “superb arrogance” for favoring the PF. Conversely, Rustin was skeptical of the election the following year that brought Mugabe to power. In a co-authored Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rustin observed that the 1980 poll (which he also monitored) was held “in a pervasive climate of fear.”

However, Rustin’s distrust of the PF was prescient. He foresaw that Nkomo and Mugabe would directly clash once they wrested control of Zimbabwe. A Rustin essay reviewed the legacy of lethal violence and internal turmoil within Mugabe’s wing of the PF and found that Mugabe “favors totalitarianism out of ideological conviction.” Mugabe notoriously went on to hold office for nearly four decades and ruthlessly eliminated his opposition.

Rustin’s background partially explains some of his affinity for the negotiated settlement between Muzorewa and Rhodesia’s white settlers. He was a Quaker, a dedicated pacifist alienated by Nkomo’s and Mugabe’s commitment to armed revolution to secure Zimbabwe’s independence. By the 1970s Rustin was also an ardent Cold War warrior, unnerved by the spread of communism in southern Africa and Soviet and Cuban engagement in the region (Nkomo was supported by the Soviet Union while China backed Mugabe). However, Rustin’s views were selectively formed. Muzorewa had only recently ended his exile in Mozambique, which was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. Once in power, Muzorewa authorized armed incursions into neighboring countries, continuing the confrontational posture of his settler predecessors against the PF. There were suspicions Muzorewa was behind efforts to eliminate his opponents, such as Arthur Kanodereka, who was murdered shortly after the two had a falling out.

Rustin’s backing of Muzorewa and hostility toward the PF was at odds with progressive opinion in the US. However, his independent thought allowed him to see the challenges wrought by Zimbabwe’s prolonged and contentious liberation struggle more perceptively than his peers. Andrew Young continued to back Mugabe well after Zimbabwe’s post-2000 descent. Perhaps when evaluated against the longer trajectory of Zimbabwean governance, Rustin’s contradictions on Zimbabwe do embody the USA’s bifurcated relationship with democracy and freedom.

Further Reading