This is Mr. Rustin’s adaptation of a commencement address he gave at the Tuskegee Institute on May 31, 1970. He is the executive director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
YOUR GENERATION has lived through a period of unprecedented upheaval. Most of you were only five years old when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. You were seven when a young black preacher named Martin Luther King emerged as the leader of the Montgomery bus protest. At eleven you witnessed the beginning of the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, and for the next ten years—your adolescent years that were to shape the perspective with which you now look out on the world—you lived through a period in black American history more eventful than any other decade, including the decade of the Civil War. The March on Washington, the outbreak of large-scale violence in hundreds of Negro communities, and the rise of the Black Power movement—these events no doubt had their precedents in the March on Washington movement of 1941, the race riots of 1919 and 1943, and the black nationalist Garvey movement in the 1920s. But in the 1960s they occurred with a driving momentum that made the race problem the central issue in our national politics.
It is difficult to judge precisely what the effect of this experience with uninterrupted social protest has been on your generation (I am referring here to young whites as well as to young blacks). But I would not doubt that it has made the political consciousness of this generation sensitive primarily to what we may call the upward arc of historical movement. The problem is that such a consciousness finds it hard to come to grips with the reality that history consists of alternating periods of movement and stagnation, of action and reaction, of tremendous hope and enthusiasm, which can be followed by cynicism and exhaustion. I am not suggesting that this process is inevitable, though to a certain extent it does seem to contain an internal dynamic that operates independently of human will. What I am suggesting is that we must understand this process if we are to be in a position to influence it.
What we must first understand is that the pendulum of history has already begun to swing downward. It is impossible now to gauge the extent of this reaction. My own feeling is that the drift to the Right in American politics can be reversed if we do the correct thing. But we cannot escape the conclusion that, for the present at least, the conservatives have made important and ominous gains. They control the White House and, through the power of presidential appointment, have gained a majority on the Supreme Court.