When people think of the March on Washington, the first person that comes to mind is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But volunteers of the historical event also attribute the success of that day to Bayard Rustin – a.k.a. “Mr. March on Washington.” Bayard Rustin was the lead organizer of the August 28th march and is known as the only civil rights activist to pull together an event of such magnitude.
Bayard Rustin was a Pennsylvania native who was raised by a Quaker grandmother. An activist since he was a teen, Rustin had worked as a nightclub singer in Harlem, and became part of a communist youth group, serving jailed time in WWII for resistance. Rustin had been sent to prison more than two dozen times for protesting and he was on the FBI’s hot list, with wiretaps on his phone line.
It was Rustin who booked the buses for the magnanimous march, scheduled speech time & planned menus. But none of that would prove to be impossible for a black man who was openly gay in 1963. Ten years prior, he had been arrested for engaging with men in a parked car in California, which was illegal. His sexuality was an issue for other political officials around him. In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell threatened to start a rumor that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if he didn’t expel him from the circle of activists.
Among the planning tasks of the march was controlling law enforcement. It was Rustin who interviewed each officer to ensure a non-violent response in case of resistance. The volunteers had a 12-page manual made by Rustin to ensure a smooth operation.
Only one day following the March on Washington, Rustin organized a group of 16 interracial men to boycott the bus system in the South. He would lead the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the SCLC and led Dr. King to his affiliation with Ghandi.
Bayard Rustin died in 1987. A book of his letters is expected to be published in spring 2014.
President Barack Obama announced this week that Rustin is on the list of recipients for the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. Rustin will receive a posthumous award along with a host of 15 additional recipients, including Former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech.