Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, was crucial to the movement
By Steve Hendrix,
It was around this point in August 1963, in the sweltering days before the March on Washington, that Eleanor Holmes Norton was waiting for someone to say something really nasty about her boss.
She was a march volunteer. The boss was Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer and the man widely viewed as the only civil rights activist capable of pulling off a protest of such unprecedented scale.
And he was gay. Openly gay. That year again? 1963.
“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” says Norton, now the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will be forever known as the day that ensured the success of the civil rights movement and launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the highest pantheon of American champions. Next week, on the 48th anniversary of the march, King will be anointed into that ultra-selective fraternity of national leaders memorialized on the Mall.
But for hundreds of civil rights veterans, Aug. 28 will also always be Bayard’s Day, the crowning achievement of one of the movement’s most effective, and unconventional, activists.
“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” says Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”
In the weeks before the march, planners were checking off details by the thousand: buses booked, speeches vetted, slogans written, portable toilets rented. At the Harlem headquarters, Rustin toggled between the political (brokering podium time for dozens of competing groups) and the practical (determining whether peanut butter or sandwiches with mayonnaise would stand up better in a Washington August).
Between phone calls, he drilled the hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters who had volunteered to serve as marshals. He made them take off their guns and coached them in the techniques of nonviolent crowd control he had brought back from a pilgrimage to India.
“We used to go out to the courtyard to watch,” says Rachelle Horowitz, a longtime Rustin lieutenant who served as the march’s transportation coordinator. “It was like, see Bayard tame the police.”
Horowitz and his other disciples, meanwhile, waited for someone in the enemy camp to notice that the only thing bigger than the responsibilities on Rustin’s shoulders were the targets on his back.
The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour. He’d had a fleeting association with a communist youth group in the 1930s and had been a Harlem nightclub singer in the 1940s (and was still given to filling corridors and meeting rooms with his high troubadour tenor). He had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during World War II — he used his time there to take up the lute — and had been jailed more than 25 other times as a protester.
And, one time, he was jailed on a “morals charge,” after being caught entangled with two other men in a parked car, which was a crime in Pasadena, Calif., in 1953.
“He absolutely didn’t hide it,” Horowitz says. “He’d never heard there was a closet.”
Rustin began a lifelong, one-man march for dignity in his teen years in West Chester, Pa., where he was born in 1912. He was raised by a Quaker grandmother.
As a standout football player at a mostly white high school, Rustin was known to recite classical verse as he helped bewildered opposing linemen to their feet. He insisted that black players be housed with white players at out-of-town games and was arrested as a teenager for refusing to vacate the white areas in the town movie theater, restaurants and YMCA.
And Rustin was still a young man when he told his grandmother that he simply preferred the company of other young men.
“At his very earliest, it was apparent that Bayard liked to cause trouble for the institutions he chafed against,” says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “He began a lifetime of challenging conventions of politics, race and sexuality.”
Rustin proved a natural at strategic thinking and organizing. He would sing to crowds, debate opponents, go limp for policemen. As his 10,000-page FBI file details, he plunged into a hit parade of protest causes over his lifetime: segregation, Japanese internees, draft resisters, workers’ rights, chain-gang prisoners, the anti-nuclear movement, South African apartheid.
“He’s like the Zelig of the 20th century — he pops up in so many places,” says Bennett Singer, co-producer with Nancy Kates of “Brother Outsider,” an acclaimed 2003 documentary about Rustin.
By the late 1950s, Rustin had emerged as a key adviser to King. He was a strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott, helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was credited with persuading the civil rights leader to embrace the tenets of Gandhian nonviolence. But other black leaders disapproved of his frank sexuality and its attendant arrest record.
In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, the minister-congressman from Harlem, threatened to float a rumor that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if King didn’t exile him from his inner circle. King pushed him away, reluctantly, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Bayard had a lot of baggage — communist youth member, conscientious objector,” says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life. “But being gay was the one thing that was still unforgivable to a lot of civil rights leaders.”
But others never abandoned him, most notably A. Philip Randolph, a dean of the movement and Rustin’s longtime mentor. When the moment came for an unprecedented mass gathering in Washington, Randolph pushed Rustin forward as the logical choice to organize it.
“The details for him had real meaning,” Horowitz says. “It had to be well organized, nonviolent and peaceful, because nobody believed that black Americans could organize a march of this size. Even liberals said there would be riots.”
In mid-August, with the march looming over Washington as a growing juggernaut, it was then-Sen. Strom Thurmond who took aim at the man steering it. Speaking on the Senate floor, the South Carolina segregationist, then a Democrat, filled eight pages of the Congressional Record with detailed denunciations of Rustin as a draft-dodging communist homosexual and a convicted “sex pervert.” Thurmond had the entire Pasadena arrest file entered in the record.
In the overcrowded offices in Harlem, they braced for the worst. This time, it never came.
Randolph and King both expressed confidence in their eccentrically brilliant organizer. The march toward the march continued.
“It flared up and then flared right back down,” Norton says. “Thank God, because there was no substitute for Bayard.”
The day before the throngs were expected, as the team decamped for Washington, Norton volunteered to stay behind. In the age before call forwarding (not to mention cellphones, fax machines or desktop computers), someone had to answer the phones until the last minute.
She caught a flight early the next morning. Flying over the Mall, she looked down in time to watch the shadow of the plane skim over acres and acres of densely packed Americans, more than anyone had ever seen.
“That’s when I knew that the march was going to work,” she recalls.
The marchers weren’t rioting. They weren’t trashing the place. More than 200,000 were guided by thousands of “bus captains,” each referring frequently to Rustin’s 12-page manual on where to park, what to shout, where the bathrooms were.
“I remember how incredibly dignified everyone was,” says Henderson, then a 15-year-old who had ridden his bicycle down from Northeast Washington without his parents’ permission. “A lot of people wore ties.”
“Very early on we realized that the mood was wonderful,” Horowitz says. “At that point, you knew not only that this was big, but this was good.”
Rustin was everywhere. In films of the rally, he is a constant presence on the podium, blowing cigarette smoke behind Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, mouthing the words to “Stand by Me” with Mahalia Jackson. He is at King’s side, mesmerized, or maybe exhausted, as King thunders across the ages, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
A week later, Rustin’s picture was on the cover of Life magazine, standing next to Randolph at the feet of the towering marble Lincoln.
Rustin continued traveling and organizing until his death in 1987. But he faded from the shortlist of well-known civil rights lions.
“It’s amazing how many students we talk to at top colleges who come up and say they’ve never heard of him,” Singer says. “It was his homosexuality that was always the rub.”
But in the 1970s, the world began to catch up to Rustin’s comfort with homosexuality, and he took up gay rights as his latest public movement. Gay men and lesbians adopted him as a profile in courage, and a new generation marveled at his remarkable story. Singer is invited to show his documentary at an increasing number of schools, government agencies, law firms. New biographies have come out, and a book of Rustin’s letters will be published next spring.
“In a year in which we saw the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and other changes, this is a propitious time to put the Rustin story back before the American people,” says Henderson. His organization is part of the “Rustin Initiative,” an effort to link the civil rights and gay rights communities. “Having him acknowledged as an extraordinary leader who was himself gay, that shows where this broader movement for civil and human rights can go.”