It’s been more that fifty years since the March on Washington became the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is now remembered with a memorial on the National Mall. This is a major accomplishment for his legacy and a testament to his living spirit. I am very proud and honored to have live long enough to see the first man of color to receive such distinction and to have a president of color unveil the monument to this great man.
Dr. King now has reached his place of immortality and as marvelous as this is I wondered if anyone knows the man whose shoulders he stood. One person in particular would be the chief organizer of the March on Washington, who some have called the man behind the dream. I thought it would be fitting to give props to the man responsible for making the historic March on Washington a reality – Bayard Rustin. He was one of the most important leaders of the civil rights movement from the advent of its modern period in the 1950s until well into the 1980s.
Although his name is seldom mentioned or receives comparatively little press or media attention, while others’ were usually much more readily associated with the movement. Mr. Rustin’s role was a behind-the-scenes role that, for all its importance, never garnered him the public acclaim he deserved. Rustin’s homosexuality and early communist affiliation probably meant that the importance of his contribution to the civil rights and peace movements would never be acknowledged.
Rustin was a gifted and successful student in the schools of West Chester, both academically and on his high school track and football teams. It was during this period of his life that Bayard began to demonstrate his gift for singing with a beautiful tenor voice. He attended Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College. In 1937 he moved to New York City, where he was to live the rest of his life.
It was at this time that Rustin began to organize for the Young Communist League of City College. The communists’ progressive stance on the issue of racial injustice appealed to him. He broke with the Young Communist League and soon found himself seeking out A. Philip Randolph head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who at that time was a leading articulator of the rights of Afro-Americans.
He soon headed the youth wing of a march on Washington that Randolph envisioned. Randolph called off the demonstration when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802, forbidding racial discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries. Randolph’s calling off of the projected march caused a temporary breach between him and Bayard Rustin, and Rustin transferred his organizing efforts to the peace movement, first in the Fellowship of Reconciliation and later in the American Friends Service Committee, the Socialist Party, and the War Resisters League.
In 1944, Rustin was found guilty of violating the Selective Service Act and was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. In March 1944, Rustin was sent to the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. He then set about to resist the pervasive segregation then the norm in prisons in the United States, although faced with vicious racism from some of the prison guards and white prisoners, Rustin faced frequent cruelty with courage and completely nonviolent resistance.
On release from prison, Rustin got involved again with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which staged a journey of reconciliation through four Southern and border states in 1947 to test the application of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that discrimination in seating in interstate transportation was illegal. Rustin’s resistance to North Carolina’s Jim Crow law against integration in transportation earned him twenty-eight days hard labor on a chain gang, where he met with the usual racist taunts and tortures on the part of his imprisonment.
Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin traveled first to India and then to Africa under the sponsorship of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, exploring the nonviolent dimensions of the Indian and Ghanaian independence movements. In 1953, Rustin was arrested for public indecency in Pasadena, California, while lecturing under the auspices of the American Association of University Women. It was the first time that Rustin’s homosexuality had come into public attention, and at that time homosexual behavior in all states was a criminal offense.
In 1956, Rustin was approached by Lillian Smith, the celebrated Southern novelist who authored Strange Fruit, to provide Dr. Martin Luther King with some practical advice on how to apply Gandhian principles of nonviolence to the boycott of public transportation then taking shape in Montgomery, Alabama. Rustin spent time in Montgomery and Birmingham advising King, who had not yet completely embraced principles of nonviolence in his struggle. By 1957, Rustin was busy playing a large role in the birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and in the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington that took place on May 17, 1957 to urge President Eisenhower to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that the nation’s schools be desegregated.
Arguably the high point of Bayard Rustin’s political career was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which took place on August 28, 1963, the place of Dr. Martin Luther King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin was by all accounts the March’s chief architect. To devise a march of at least a quarter of a million participants and to coordinate the various sometimes fractious civil rights organizations that played a part in it was a herculean feat of mobilization.
By 1965, Rustin had come to believe that the period for militant street action had come to an end; the legal foundation for segregation had been irrevocably shattered. Rustin’s steadfast opposition to identity politics also came under criticism by exponents of the developing Black Power movement. His critical stance toward affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among many of his fellow Afro-Americans, and as at various other times of his life Rustin found himself to a certain extent isolated.
Although Bayard Rustin lived in the shadow of more charismatic civil rights leaders, he can lay real claim to have been an indispensable unsung force behind the movement toward equality for America’s black citizens, and more largely for the rights of humans around the globe, in the twentieth century. Throughout his life his personal philosophy, incorporating beliefs that were of central importance to him: that there is that of God in every person, that all are entitled to a decent life, and that a life of service to others is the way to happiness and true fulfillment.
Let’s not let the dream die! All of us stand upon the shoulders of someone be it great or not. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…