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The Randolph Institute

Bayard Rustin (left) and A. Philip Randolph
Bayard Rustin (left) and A. Philip Randolph

In 1965, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Bayard Rustin and A Philip Randolphco-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute with funding from the AFL-CIO.

Rustin, as Executive Director, sought to realize the vision of mainstream political participation articulated in his article "From Protest to Politics," and the labor attachments of the Institute complemented his sharpening focus on universal economic rights to produce an agenda aimed primarily at eradicating poverty and joblessness. Rustin pushed these objectives behind the scenes, continuing to advise Martin Luther King, Jr. as King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference moved North to wage its fair housing campaigns in Chicago. The two leaders' priorities largely converged around economic opportunity in 1966, and though King's turn in this direction has been amply noted, Rustin's influence should not be understated. His counsel extended to other leaders, as well, including Roy Wilkins, with whom he served on the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, a body made up of several "old guard" Civil Rights leaders.

To Fulfill These Rights

Though Rustin and others were increasing its visibility, economic justice was not a new idea, and had in fact been part and parcel of 1963's March on Washington (fully titled: "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom"), which Randolph had conceived and Rustin had organized. In the aftermath of that watershed, the Johnson administration made several gestures to the non-militant Civil Rights machinery, including hosting a conference in November of 1965 titled "To Fulfill These Rights." At that conference, Randolph promised to “call upon the leaders of the Freedom Movement to meet together with economists and social scientists in order to work out a specific and documented ‘Freedom Budget’” (Freedom Budget, October, 1966 edition). In a memo to the Johnson administration expanding on Randolph’s ideas, Rustin wrote that a “Freedom Budget” would entail “massive public works investments combined with upgrading of skills through education and training programs,” “expansion of employment opportunities in the human care of human beings,” and “increasing the national minimum wage to two dollars an hour.” (Memo to Lee White. A. Philip Randolph Papers.)

Over the course of the next eleven months, Rustin worked tirelessly to coordinate the production of such a concrete Freedom Budget, and though he and Randolph imagined the general contours of the document, Leon Keyserling, an influential economist from the Truman era, wrote it almost single-handedly. Correspondence between Keyserling and Rustin throughout 1966 suggests that the relationship between the two was often strained. In a February 9, 1966 letter to Rustin, for instance, Keyserling responds to pressures to finish writing by noting that while other economists were interested in helping, “when it came down to doing the work, all of them were so overloaded that they really could not help appreciably. I want you to know that I have three times as many commitments as any of them and one-fifth to one-tenth as much staff to help me.” (February 9, 1966 letter. Bayard Rustin Papers.)

The Budget's Proposals

In spite of Keyserling's discontent, he completed the original, eighty four page budget in time for its October 27, 1966 release event at New York's Salem Methodist Church. At that event, he spoke alongside Rustin and Randolph, advocating fervently for the Budget's eleven goals, which were: the abolition of poverty, guaranteed full employment, full production and high economic growth, adequate minimum wages, farm income parity, guaranteed incomes for all unable to work, a decent home for every American family, modern health services for all, full educational opportunity for all, updated social security and welfare programs, and equitable tax and money policies.

The employment objectives were to be accomplished by massive public works programs to build more classrooms, hospitals, transportation systems, and replace “slum ghettos” with alternative housing. In addition, the problem of the working poor was to be alleviated by an increased minimum wage of two dollars. Each of these programs was intended to complement a unified guaranteed annual income provided by welfare, assistance to the elderly, and assistance to the disabled (Wallach, 2003).

Keyserling was confident that all of the Budget’s programs could be paid for without tax increases or cutbacks on defense, international, and space funding by utilizing what he called the “economic growth dividend.” The “growth dividend” was the aggregate gross national product increase that Keyserling anticipated between 1965 and 1975. This increase was based on a 5% annual growth rate estimate, which in retrospect may have been unrealistic. Keyserling suggested that only 1/13th of this growth dividend would cover all costs of the freedom budget. This figure was rhetorically useful, but in reality the relevant figure was the increase in federal tax revenues that would have resulted from such growth. At Keyserling’s growth rate, tax revenues would have increased by $400 billion, making the $185 billion he proposed spending nearer to 47% of added federal tax revenues (Wallach, 2003).

Rustin's Advocacy

Rustin's long-term plan was to gather enough support for the budget that it could be turned into a specific legislative proposal to be advocated in Congress. Before the first edition's publication, even, he began this work by sending out hundreds of letters seeking signatories. By October, more than two hundred prominent public figures had endorsed the Budget, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Stokley Carmichael. Members of the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, The Urban League, and SCLC all lent their support, although, as Dona and Charles Hamilton have written, “many people doubtless signed the document out of respect for the venerable Randolph and not because they necessarily agreed with every item in it” (Hamilton and Hamilton, p. 148). In fact, these organizations were sharply divided by '66, as SNCC and CORE pursued Black Power agendas. Randolph and Rustin themselves contributed to the disunion, billing the Freedom Budget as a much-needed counterpoint to Black Power ideology. In a letter to young activists about the Budget, Randolph wrote:

I write you not just as an older man, but as a civil rights leader, who for many years has been deeply concerned about the future of Negro youth […] I have taken part in many struggles to make your lives more meaningful. In the course of these struggles we have made some progress, I believe, because we did not give in to bitterness, hatred, and violence […] we must not now be so foolish as to permit a tiny minority of hate-filled bigots, black or white, to provoke us into irresponsible and emotional behavior, to provoke us into actions which will destroy our movement and separate us from others in this society whose help we sorely need. (Letter to Black Youth. Bayard Rustin Papers)

Even more publicly, Randolph and Rustin, along with Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Dorothy Height, Amos T. Hall, and Hobson Reynolds published a large ad in the New York Times denouncing black power and reiterating “the goal of integration into every aspect of national life."(New York Times, October 14, 1966). John D'Emilio, in his excellent biography of Rustin, notes that Rustin had urged King to sign on, as well, but that King did not at that point want to firmly stand with or against Black Power. Nevertheless, King was among the strongest supporters of the Freedom Budget, and spoke widely to its merits, even contributing the foreword to the 20-page popular edition of the budget that the Randolph Institute published in February of 1967.

With the publication of this popular edition (considerably simplified and filled with illustrations) Rustin intensified his public advocacy, traveling around the country to speak on behalf of the Budget and coordinating the support of several national, grassroots organizations. Among these groups were The United States Youth Council, The American Jewish Conference, and The American Federation of Teachers. The Bayard Rustin Papers include numerous letters from individuals around the country who supported the Budget, several of whom championed its principles to their government representatives. In short, Rustin's peerless organizational skills combined to gather diverse and powerful support for the Freedom Budget.


For all of Rustin's efforts, the most remarkable aspect of the Freedom Budget was its failure. This is not to suggest that its ambitious proposals - which, if implemented would have completely re-imagined the priorities of federal spending - were likely to survive the policy-making process. Nevertheless, given the vast network of support that Rustin was able to construct, it is surprising and revealing that the budget was entirely off of the radar by 1969. Equally interesting is the almost total absence of scholarly work on the Freedom Budget. John D'Emilio's 2003 Rustin biography stands as one notable exception, providing a persuasive, if not complete, explanation of the Budget's premature demise.

D'Emilio suggests that two major rifts in the civil rights establishment made the Freedom Budget unsalable. On the one hand, the seminal divide between integrationism and black powerism prevented Rustin from genuinely harnessing the entirety of the civil rights infrastructure. Though he collected the names of Stokley Carmichael and others for the freedom budget, his public criticism of their strategy kept any real alliance around the Budget from materializing. Rustin found their highly polarizing, emotional approach anathema to practical politics, calling their tactics a "cop out [...] talk about hair, about what name you want to be called, and about soul food"(Rustin quoted in D'Emilio, p.450).

On the other hand, the debate over the Vietnam War and its appropriateness within the Civil Rights discourse put Rustin in a position of needing to either support or oppose the war. As D'Emilio writes, "in the polarized environment of the late 1960's, the war quickly became a litmus test of an individual's entire political worldview"(D'Emilio, p.442). And while Rustin had gone to jail in opposing other wars, his newfound commitment to pragmatic political action led him in this case to take a more conciliatory stance to Vietnam. Though he did not support the war, and in fact did condemn it quietly on a few occasions, he saw President Johnson's favor as the precondition of the Freedom Budget's viability, and did not want to compromise the President's support. In the past, this pragmatism may have privileged Rustin, but as King and other central leaders came out strongly against Vietnam, Rustin's reticence left him looking biddable and establishmentarian. In D'Emilio's eyes, Rustin alienated the progressives whose support he most required to realize the Freedom Budget.

Yet in addition to the climatic hurdles to the Freedom Budget, the Rustin Papers suggest another, critical strategic misstep, which was a failure to transform the Freedom Budget into a concrete legislative proposal while it was accumulating public support. Such a repurposing had always been in Rustin's sights, but he ultimately failed in convincing either the Randolph Institute or the Leadership Council on Civil Rights to go ahead with it. It is possible that as Vietnam dominated the public imagination, Rustin lost hope for the Budget, but his failure to push at least some of its ideas into the policy arena remains puzzling. Whatever its ultimate downfall, the Freedom Budget offered a prophetic, universalistic vision of civil rights, in which employment and economic opportunity were the keys to black advancement and full citizenship. The last quarter of the twentieth century has powerfully illustrated the consequences of overlooking these goals, as black joblessness and its attendant devastation have reinforced racial inequality. With this hindsight, it is a tragedy that Rustin could not take the Freedom Budget further than he did.


1) D'Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. New York: Free Press, 2003.

2) Hamilton, Charles V., and Dona Cooper Hamilton. The Dual Agenda: Race and Social Welfare Policies of Civil Rights Organizations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

3) Patterson, Lillie. A. Philip Randolph: Messenger For The Masses. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1996.

4) Bayard Rustin Papers

• Address by A. Philip Randolph at Freedom Budget Press Conference. October 26, 1966.

• Letter from Leon Keyserling to Bayard Rustin. February 9, 1966. From Bayard Rustin Papers.

• Letter from Stokley Carmichael to Bayard Rustin. August 16, 1966.

• “AN OPEN LETTER TO NEGRO YOUTH.” From A. Philip Randolph.

• “Statement By Martin Luther King on the Occasion of the Introduction of the Freedom Budget.” October 26, 1966.

• Memorandum on Recent Developments In Support of the Freedom Budget. Drafted by the Randolph Institute. April, 1967.

5) A. Philip Randolph Papers

• “Recommendations for the White House Conference on Negro Family Life.” Memorandum to Lee White, Assistant to President Johnson. From Bayard Rustin. October 7, 1965.

• Minutes of The Executive Committee of The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. March 8, 1967. From NAACP papers.

• A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans. New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966

6) 7 Negro Leaders Issue a Statement of Principles Repudiating “Black Power” Concepts. New York Times, October 14, 1966.

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