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.”