Ever since 250,000 people descended on the Reflecting Pool and the grounds surrounding the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, other movements at home and abroad have tried to replicate its power. But none of them had Bayard Rustin, the organizing genius who pulled the extraordinary event together 50 years ago today.
Rustin’s name often gets lost in the recollections of the civil rights movement. And it is most certainly overshadowed, as is everyone else’s, by that of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, were it not for the skills of the openly gay activist for racial and economic equality, the world might never have heard of King’s dream, and the plea for justice might have taken a little longer to break through.
Lord knows some of Rustin’s genius could be used today. As Martin Luther King III writes on The Post’s op-ed page: “Although significant progress has been made in some areas, too many Americans have inadequate opportunities to escape poverty, joblessness, discrimination, social neglect and violence.” So, during a discussion that I moderated Monday night at a celebration of Rustin’s life, I asked panelists what the revered organizer would tell today’s generation of young activists. The lessons are the same. What’s missing is a leader like Rustin.
“These times are made for Bayard Rustin,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who spent the summer of 1963 working on the march with Rustin. After rattling off a list of problems similar to that in King’s op-ed, Holmes Norton took a shot at a grass-roots movement that many hoped would lead to a renaissance of activism but that “disappointed” her.
“Occupy Wall Street is a perfect example of why you need a Bayard Rustin,” Holmes Norton said. “After they spread all over the country, the polls showed that Occupy Wall Street displaced the tea party. And what did Occupy Wall Street do with it? Nuthin’!” So very true. She marveled at Occupy’s ability to reorient the national conversation to issues of economic disparity. But despaired at the opportunity squandered by Occupy. “There was no Bayard Rustin to take hold of this, a spontaneous uprising of the middle class and the poor, and do something with it.”
Picking up on this theme, Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, paraphrased what he said was a favorite mantra of Rustin’s and of A. Philip Randolph, the legendary leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters labor union. “There are no free seats at the table of life,” Henderson said. “You get what you can take. You keep what you can hold. But you can’t take it and you sure can’t hold it unless you’re organized.”
As an early planner of the 1963 march with Rustin, Norman Hill, who was a national staff coordinator for the Congress of Racial Equality, knows his late boss’s thinking. With crisp, attention-grabbing delivery, Hill outlined the four characteristics today’s young activists must have (“in addition to courage and perseverance, which we had in our younger days”) to follow in his generation’s footsteps.
1.) “Political savvy to understand how to mount pressure to elect officials committed to race equality and economic justice.”
2.) “Engage in grass-roots lobbying to collect from them, as well.”
3.) “Organized know-how, how to build and sustain a movement.”
4.) “Economic understanding to understand why and how in this, the richest country in the world, there is still poverty disproportionately experienced by blacks.”
Hill added a fifth must-have: “Analytical ability.” This is essential, he said, “to be able to understand why and how the problems facing blacks are not merely racial, but economic and social and based and grounded in the inadequacy of our institutions.” But, Hill added, protest isn’t enough. What is also needed is a “political response to get meaningful governmental action in response to the needs and problems, not just of blacks, but of all [of] America’s have-nots and have-littles.”
“When he pushed, he pushed in a positive way,” Henderson said of Rustin. “He pushed back in a strategic, thoughtful way. And he used pressure and skill at his disposal to make change. That’s the lesson he’d have for the young people.”
As Holmes Norton said, “We need a Bayard Rustin today.”
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