On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we remember its key organizer, Medal of Freedom winner Bayard Rustin.
Today our nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A seminal event in the civil rights movement, the march was the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “I Have a Dream” speech, and is often remembered as King’s creation. But as world-changing as King’s speech was, he wasn’t the only major civil rights leader involved in the March on Washington. Foremost among the march’s organizers was a man who often preferred to remain behind the scenes: Bayard Rustin.
So important were Bayard Rustin’s contributions to civil rights that earlier this month, the White House announced he will be awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2013. He joins well-known public figures like Bill Clinton, Sally Ride, Loretta Lynn and Oprah Winfrey in this year’s class of 16 Medal of Freedom recipients. Rustin, who died just over 26 years ago, isn’t as well-known as some of his fellow honorees, but his legacy is well worth remembering. In honor of the man who made the March on Washington happen, we offer 10 facts.
1. Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents. Their home was often visited by NAACP leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, and the influence of these leaders – and his civil rights-activist grandmother – led him to join the campaign against Jim Crow laws when he was still in school.
2. As a young man, Rustin moved to New York, where he joined the Young Communist League, aligning himself with a party that was, at that time, working to advance civil rights in the United States. Within a few years, the Communist Party of the U.S. had abandoned civil rights and shifted its focus to World War II. Rustin, too, shifted – aligning himself with the Socialist Party.
3. During his early days in New York, Rustin was more than a civil rights activist – he was a professional singer, too. As a member of blues singer Josh White’s band, Rustin performed at the Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, meeting many who would be useful contacts in his work as an activist.
4. Among the key tenets of Rustin’s vision for civil rights was a truly integrated America. He didn’t support the Black Power movement, believing it was important that we work together, regardless of race or color. This was one of several aspects of Rustin that made him unpopular among some leading civil rights activists. Another was his open homosexuality, in an era when homosexual behavior was still a criminal act throughout the United States.
5. In 1947, Rustin helped organize the first of the Freedom Rides, testing a Supreme Court ruling banning discrimination in interstate travel. As a Freedom Rider, Rustin was arrested in North Carolina for violating laws that segregated public transportation. He served 22 days on a chain gang.
6. Rustin intended to travel to India to meet with Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 to learn about nonviolent resistance. But before he could make his trip, Gandhi was assassinated. Rustin still made the journey and met with leaders of the Gandhian movement, bringing back the techniques he’d learned and applying them to his activist philosophies. He even passed them directly to Dr. King, teaching him what he’d learned from Gandhi’s followers and convincing King to abandon any appearance of violence, including armed protection for himself and his family.
7. Rustin worked with King again when the two leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But Rustin didn’t remain with the organization for long. Other leaders were concerned that as an open homosexual, Rustin would damage the SCLC in the public eye, and he was pushed out.
8. Some leaders – among them Senator Strom Thurmond – continued to try to discredit Rustin on the basis of his sexual orientation. But King and others knew he was a powerful force for civil rights, and he was placed in the forefront of organizing the March on Washington, scheduled to take place on August 28, 1963. Rustin trained the march’s security force, made up of off-duty police officers; he worked on issues of traffic control; and he scheduled the speakers who would inspire the crowd. His efforts brought him into the spotlight more than ever – he and A. Philip Randolph appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine, billed as the “leaders” of the march.
9. After the March on Washington, Rustin continued to work toward human rights – both in the African-American civil rights movement and in the emerging gay rights movement. His friendship with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall helped influence Marshall’s decisions regarding gay rights, including his dissent from the court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws.
10. Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. He was survived by his longtime partner Walter Naegle – and by legions of activists who drew on his nonviolent example to change the world for the better.
“Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.” –White House press release, August 2013