"That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."--James Baldwin
Early, that steamy August morning 20 years ago, long before the day became history, long before the echoing words "I Have a Dream" became part of the American lexicon, Bayard Rustin walked over to the grounds near the Lincoln Memorial.
It was 6:30 a.m. and reporters had started to gather. Some were highly skeptical of the effort to bring hundreds of thousands of blacks and whites to Washington to call attention to the bucket marked justice that was empty for black Americans.
"Well, you claim over 200,000 people are coming. No one is here. What is happening?" a reporter asked Rustin, the march coordinator, as the two of them surveyed the empty expanse.
"I was terrified people wouldn't show," Rustin said recently, describing the first of many emotions that day. "I took out my pocket watch, checked it, took out a blank piece of paper, looked carefully at it, and announced, 'Everything is going according to schedule.' "
His laugh, long and easy, flies away from the lined, bronze face.
The day, Aug. 28, 1963, turned out to be more important than anyone expected, the single largest civil rights demonstration America has ever seen. Rustin was partly its catalyst, definitely its locomotive. March director A. Philip Randolph, the preeminent elder of the civil rights leaders, had given him eight weeks to pull together in eight weeks the massive organization that brought more than 250,000 to the haunting shadow of Lincoln and sent them home with a brand-new vision of possibilities.
Out of the group that bravely initiated the push for social rights in the 1940s through the 1960s--especially the march speakers--A. Philip Randolph, Martin L. King, Walter Reuther, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins are dead. James Farmer, the former president of Congress of Racial Equality, was in jail in Louisiana that day, and is now quietly writing an autobiography. John Lewis, the chairman of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee, is a city councilmember in Atlanta.
Long before and long after 1963, Rustin had been in the thick of civil rights, pacifist, labor and refugee movements. His life has been one of the myths, and some think one of the contradictions, of the civil rights struggle. Once he was universally seen as a courageous and progressive thinker; now some former allies consider him an exponent, and even an apologist, for the neo-conservatives. In recent years, some of his political positions have been criticized by liberal blacks and whites, and some distance has grown between him and parts of the civil rights leadership.
Many of those same critics, however, take the generosity of the long view and believe the Great March wouldn't have worked without him. James Farmer, then national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, says today, "I don't know anyone else who could put together all the various elements."
But, when the call went out for the 20th anniversary march, which is to take place Saturday, Rustin rejected the summons.
"I had a number of reasons for questioning a march in this time of economic frustration in the black community," says Rustin, sitting among the pictures and posters from those days that now fill his New York office. At 73, he is tall and bony, his angular 6-foot-3 frame fed by a daily lunch of yogurt. He is always impeccably tailored, with a clipped lawn of white hair, an appearance once described by poet Robert Penn Warren as "a strange mixture of strength and sensitivity."
He is asking, as always, unpopular questions: "Would it be possible to have orderly demonstrations? Wouldn't the attempt to combine the peace and civil rights movements obscure the civil rights nature? If it failed, wouldn't people say the country had lost interest in civil rights? I was also fearful it would not be done with dignity. So, I can not give my energy to something I do not fully believe in."
It is a decision that fits into his complex and controversial life.
Out of the group that bravely initiated the push for social rights in the 1940s through the 1960s--especially among those who spoke at the march--A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Walter Reuther, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins are dead. Farmer was in jail in Louisiana the day of the march, and is now quietly writing an autobiography. John Lewis, then national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is a city council member in Atlanta.
Bayard Rustin has always heard a different drummer. He operated from socialist and pacifist credos, 20 and 30 years ago developing a much more radical base than most black leaders.
He has had no large membership organization of his own to back his controversial opinions, and yet he is seen as a spokesman for minority interests, especially by labor and Jewish groups. He was the only black named by Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz in the early 1970s as a leading intellectual. Some of his allies from those days regard Rustin as a liberal turned neo-conservative. They feel his status as one of the few blacks inside those circles has hampered a broader dialogue between white conservatives and black liberals.
Some of his public statements in recent years outraged former friends. He has spoken against employment and admissions quotas and in support of much of the U.S. policy of Israel through his group BASIC (Black Americans to Support Israel Committee). Some of his associations, too, particulary with Freedom House (a conservative international policy group), have made old supporters furious. That group made a move Rustin says he has been encouraging for years when he put South Africa on its list of repressive governments for the first time last year.
Those old supporters have reacted with public displays of anger. At a meeting in 1979 of 100 black leaders, who were discussing Middle East policy and black-Jewish relations in the aftermath of Andrew Young's resignation at the United Nations, Rustin was booed for defending the American-Jewish position. "I was denounced," he shouts even today.
Though his visibility has decreased dramatically since the 1960s, Rustin is still very active as chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights executive committee, chairman of Freedom House's executive committee, chairman of the board of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor policy research group that he says is supported by wealthy individuals and trade unions, and international vice president of the International Rescue Committee.
His criticism of the upcoming anniversary march, says its national director, Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), "caps a failure on his part to move with the movement since 1963." Fauntroy says he wanted Rustin to help organize, even direct again, the upcoming march.
Their disagreement is longstanding and public. Fauntroy cites Rustin's opposition to trying boycotts in northern cities in the mid-1960s, his opposition to King's denouncement of the Vietnam War (a charge Rustin disputes) and his siding with the Jewish-American community against Young. "I have been uncomfortable with what I considered to be a former progressive becoming a reactionary," says Fauntroy. Rustin says he is greatly pained by personality politics, and did indeed publicly support King's opposition to the war, but didn't want the peace and civil rights movements linked.
Among his friends and foes there is no disagreement that Rustin has style.
In 1955, King turned to him for help with the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. The town officials wanted to know who this man was with the clipped, adopted British accent. In soldierly fashion, Rustin straightened and answered, "a reporter from Le Figaro." In the time it took for the officials to determine his true identity, Rustin finished his strategy and left town.
Though publicly harmonious, the Great March leadership was rife with jockeying, jealousies and some impatience. Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, criticized Rustin at one meeting for all his nitpicking, such as the number of portable johns. Rustin shouted back, "you can't have these people p------ all over Washington."
On a trip to Thailand in 1982 to look at Laotian refugee camps, a U.S. Embassy staffer was introducing the delegation to the governor of the province. The Thai word for Mister is Khun. He keep saying 'Khun Rustin this, and Khun Rustin that.' After a while, recalls a participant, Rustin joked, in a stage whisper, "If that son of a b---- calls me a coon again, I am going to kick him in the a--." Everyone burst into laughter, to the bewilderment of the Thais.
Later on that same trip, Rustin, dressed in a blue polo shirt, white pants, white panama hat, and carrying an Irish walking stick, thanked the refugees by singing. He raised his hands in a V to the top of the hut, tears pouring down his cheeks, and sang the spiritual "Oh Freedom."
Still, many ask, why Israel, why Cambodia, why El Salvador, why Poland, when many American blacks are caught on the carousel of progress and slippage? "My problem with Bayard basically is his concern on any issue is transitory," says Farmer. "He has the tremendous ability, because of his real talent, to speak on any side of the issue. But one wonders what he believes."
Yet in places there is access and respect. "Bayard has been consistent . . . in his belief in the need for coalitions. And he has not grown conservative, he is trying to cut through the rhetoric and get to the issue," says William Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review.
"I learned long ago to respond to anything Mr. Rustin is involved in and not ask questions," said Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.), looking across the table at Rustin during a briefing on Indochinese refugees on the Hill a year ago.
Rustin, doodling on a piece of paper, smiled slightly.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pa., where a community of black freedmen founded by the Quakers had existed since the Civil War. His mother never married and he was raised by his grandmother, who was a nurse, a Quaker and an early member of the NAACP.
Though the town boasted of harmony between blacks, Jews, Irish and Chinese, Rustin's childhood did not escape the scars of segregation. In high school, he played guard on the football team, and when he was refused service in a restaurant with his teammates, he held his own sit-in.
He went to Wilberforce on a music scholarship, attended Cheyney State College for two years, and then the College of the City of New York, as well as the London School of Economics. At CCNY, he worked his way through by singing, occasionally at the Cafe Society with Leadbelly and Josh White. In New York in 1936, he joined the Young Communist League because they were the ones speaking for black causes, such as the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. Rustin left the League in 1941 when they wouldn't fight against segregration in the armed forces.
After college he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group. From that base he helped organize Randolph's first attempted march on Washington in 1941 (which was called off after President Roosevelt signed an executive order barring discrimination in defense industries or government) and worked as the first field secretary of CORE, organizing some of the early chapters.
As early as 1942 he was beaten by police for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Tennessee.
Though he had his share of beatings, those early years for Rustin went beyond southern police blotters. During World War II, Rustin went to California and protested against Japanese internment and was jailed 28 months as a conscientious objector. In 1947 he spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang during the original Freedom Ride.
The man King enlisted as an adviser in 1955 was a rare person, a black who had traveled extensively and knew firsthand the freedom movements in India and Africa. Gandhi, along with King and Randolph, were Rustin's main influences. "From Gandhi I learned that the greatest strength is to be right and to have a single standard," he said.
Rustin drew up the organizational prospectus for what became King's national organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spearheaded the fund-raising for the southern movement in New York, and arranged one of King's early national appearances, a speech at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage here.
At the time of the Selma March in 1965, Randolph collapsed in the airport in Montgomery. Rachelle Horowitz, the 1963 march transportation director, remembers everyone thought immediately they couldn't send Randolph to a local hospital and chance the prevailing racist sentiments. and send him to a local hospital. "Bayard screamed at the cops, 'See here, keep your hands off him.' At the same time, the King entourage was coming through the airport, and it looked like Randolph might be trampled. King stopped. He and Bayard put Rustin on the stretcher and started carrying him to the King plane. Well, of course, the cameramen wanted a picture. Bayard started pushing. And that was the only time I saw Bayard almost hit someone."
In that time, Rustin also worked on other fronts in New York, where he saw the fight for equality as much different than the Birminghams and Selmas. In 1964, he organized a school strike of black parents and students in New York City. Later during the votaile volatile school decentralization in New York, Rustin sided with the unions, whose exclusion of blacks from leadership positions at that time was criticized. Even today he maintains strong connections with the trade unions. Rustin's New York office is the only other tenant in the building as the United Federation of Teachers building, and for years he has lived in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union housing cooperative near New York's Penn Station.
In the earliest days of the 1960s student movement, some of the students turned to Rustin for advice on articulating winable strategies. Courtland Cox, now an aide to Mayor Barry who was then a student at Howard, remembers, "Rustin was the one who understood change in the black community. Some of the older leaders didn't want students as part of meetings or even forming separate organizations. Rustin understood the need for a variety of views and shared his experiences."
In 1960 Stokely Carmichael and Cox invited Rustin and Malcolm X to debate "Separation or Integration." Rustin took 10 minutes of his half hour to discuss integration and then gave the rest of his time to Malcolm X, saying the students needed to hear a different view. A few years later, however, when Carmichael grabbed Black Power as a slogan, Rustin said the term was "positively harmful."
Increasingly he seemed Rustin seemed at odds with liberal views on foreign affairs. In April 1979, when Ian Smith, then the prime minister of Rhodesia, called for an election, the State Department, the Organization of African Unity, the civil rights leadership and others had called the vote "a sham." Rustin, along with Allard Lowenstein, joined a group of observers and lent the effort credibility.
All of his work This is all, his he says quite emotionally, has been part of his lifelong twin quest: a to fight for democracy and against oppression.
"I believe you cannot separate what happens to blacks in America from what happens to people seeking justice all over the world," says Rustin. When he went on the "Today" show last year and discussed Afghan refugees, but not Haitians, he deflected the criticism by saying he was calling attention to Haitians through anotherother conferences and committees.
He hears the complaints about him. And his powerful voice rises as he protests: "Some people don't like honesty. People want you to agree with them."
Some critics, he says, "feel Rustin is running all over the place, concerned with everybody else, not us. I got that very definitely for Black Americans to Support Israel. What people forget is that when I was raising money for Dr. King, a great deal of that money came from Jewish people. They also forget that two Jewish boys, along with a black boy, were murdered in Mississippi. I can't call on other people continuously to help me and mine, unless I give indication that I am willing to help other people in trouble."
He hears and it hurts. Sometimes, he says, he cryscries.
"The biggest hurt is to be considered an Uncle Tom by your own people. On the door of my house, a Star of David has been printed, I have been called a Jew lover. I don't mind that. What I mind is that the people I love most would misunderstand my motives. I have been accused of getting money from Jews, have been accused of holding certain views because that's what the Jewish community wants me to hold. That hurts me."
He refuses only to dwell on the past. "Somebody once asked Rembrandt what was his favorite painting and he said, 'The one I am working on now.' I don't look back. I think it is a considerable waste of energy. Then again someone asked Mr. Randolph when he was going to write his book, and he said 'I am too busy making history to write it.' "
Rustin had always wanted the Great March to be the Final March.
In 1963, he was 53, working as the executive secretary of the War Resisters League, and again a close associate of Randolph. The time seemed right.
The year before had been the most tumultuous in American streets since the Civil War. Black churches were being dynamited. A southern-dominated Congress wore blinders where civil rights were concerned.
Gov. Ross Barnett turned away three blacks, including James Meredith,at the doors of the University of Mississippi.
In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated as governor of Alabama for the first time and vowed, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
In April, King headed for the Birmingham of Bull Connor and wire services flashed photographs around the world of police dogs attacking blacks. On May 20, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Birmingham segregation unconstitutional. After much debate among the Kennedy cabinet, President Kennedy made a civil rights address on June 11. That next night Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, was gunned down in his driveway. Eight days later Kennedy sent a bill to Capitol Hill asking for the end of segregation in interstate public accommodations.
Rustin remembers meeting earlier that year with three colleagues. Their conclusion: "We needed a great march to do two things: to close down the period of street protest, and to usher in the period of politics."
Yet it wasn't easy.
Weeks before the march, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) spent 45 minutes on the Senate floor charging that Rustin had been a member of the Communist Party and entering his police records, including his 1953 conviction on a morals charge, into the Congressional Record. That was the wrong tactic, and the organizers closed ranks around Rustin, with King and Randolph defending his integrity and ability.
Rustin chuckles, "that was the best thing he could have done for me. Actually, because I was a homosexual, and because I had been a conscientious objector and because I was a Quaker, Mr. Wilkins had been deeply distressed. He didn't want me as the director of the march because he thought people would do just what they did. But Wilkins ended up being an enormous help."
Rustin remembers other moments:
* A discussion among the leaders as to whether Kennedy should address the crowd: Rustin argued against the invitation, believing the march should be a protest--how could you invite the head of the goverment you were criticizing? The moderate members, arguing protocol over politics and wanting the civil rights legislation passed, seemed to be winning. Then Rustin excused himself from the meeting, went out into the hall, and came back saying "his sources" told him "Kennedy would be stoned." The Rustin style again won the debate.
* Inside the march headquarters in a church building in New York: "A week before the march, Mr. Wilkins said to march transportation director Rachelle Horowitz, 'Rachelle, I don't want you to say to me what you say to the press. Add up the people coming by train, plane and bus.' Rachelle came up with a number around 100,000. He looked at her, put his arms around her, and said, 'If you are telling the truth, we will have a quarter million people.' Everyone just looked at him. And Mr. Wilkins said, 'I know my people, they are not going to make up their minds until the last minute. I can see a couple waking up and John saying to Mary Lou, 'Girl, we are going to the March on Washington today.' "
A perfectionist, Rustin also got a special order from the New York City police department to allow black officers to work in plainclothes that day in Washington. And he trained them. Horowitz remembers the sessions: "He had these guys from the federation of black officers. He would take these big cops out on the street and instruct them in nonviolence. 'Now you will link hands and quietly encircle the crowd, do not push, do not shove.' At the end they were absolutely docile."
The day became a time for the famous and the anonymous.
While making sure the television camera platforms weren't blocking the view of the Lincoln Memorial, Rustin noticed a woman in a medal-decorated blue suit trying to get on the platform. "And I said, 'Madam, where are you going?' And she said, 'I just got off the plane from Paris, I had a limo waiting for me and I am going up. I am Josephine Baker.' And, of course, I had her taken up immediately," recalls Rustin. He remembers trying to escort Paul Newman up to the stage, but the actor wanted to hang back in the crowd.
And he still has pride in his voice when he talks of another kind of spirit. "Dick Gregory showed me a woman known as Scarlet Mary, a Chicago prostitute. And she had asked Dick for a job for a couple of days. He asked why. She said 'I want to go to Washington with clean money.' She went out and did housework for two days."
But Rustin remembers best the words of Randolph, King and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the president of the American Jewish Congress; he never mentions his own brief oratory, when he and Randolph read what was called "The Pledge." The yeses of the multitude echoed for miles.
The march remains majestic in his eyes, and not just for his own part.
"Mr. Randolph was a man who never expressed emotion, never raised his voice. At the end of the march, I went over to give him a note about the death of W.E.B. DuBois. Mr. Randolph looked at me and I saw tears rolling down his cheeks and I said, 'I knew he was a friend of yours, but I didn't know you knew him so well.' And he said, 'I do not weep for DuBois but for today. I think the time has come that America is ready to accept us.'
"That was one of the great moments of my life that I had been useful in making a man I dearly respected happy."