As I watched the people walk away, I had a feeling that no force on earth can stop this movement. It has all the elements to touch the hearts of (wo)men.
Bayard Rustin

Homophobia almost erased the man who organised the March on Washington from the history books.

August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the largest nonviolent protests in the history of the United States. It was the moment when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters. It would move a nation, a world, and inspire generations to act for humanity.

This is what we remember. What so many of the history books have forgotten to tell, is the story of the organiser who brought this awesome display of resistance together.

Bayard Rustin holding a map and smiling. He knows some fudging magic is going to happen.
Bayard Rustin points to a map during a press conference four days ahead of the March on Washington in August 1963 Image: StoryCorps

1. Your values will shape the work

My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in … the values …instilled in me by my grandparents.
Bayard Rustin

Bayard (Bi-yard) Rustin was born into the world, on March 17, 1912, and we lost him on August 24, 1987. Rustin was raised in Pennsylvania by his grandparents. His grandmother, an activist and Quaker, played a significant role in his life. Grandma Rustin taught her grandson to live out the values of equality, justice and non-violent resistance throughout his life. The day he told her he was gay, she said, “I suppose that’s what you need to do” – during a fiercely homophobic era.

2. Nonviolence is not a method but a way of life

Rustin was an outspoken pacifist. In 1944, a time of war, Rustin refused to register for the draft and was sentenced to three years in prison, serving 26 months. In prison, he protested segregation and would face violence from prison guards and white prisoners.

After release, Rustin worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and visited India, Africa and Europe, to learn from activists in various independence and peace movements. Mahatma Gandhi’s movement had a significant effect on him. On return to America, Rustin would share these lessons with Martin Luther King Jr., making King the symbol of nonviolence we all know today.

3. It takes many actions to make a big change

The March on Washington did not spring up from anything. It took many smaller actions to get there. Before the march, Rustin and hundreds of others, travelled all over the country organising demonstrations, sit-ins in restaurants, theatres, hotels and barber shops. Rustin would take action on prison reform, segregation in the military and much more. Organising is a slow burn; you learn and get better after each action.

4. Build power

Rustin co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and with Ella Baker and Stanley Levinson, created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was a mass movement across the South, where groups were taught to organise and act at times of crisis. Ella Baker was appointed to build the organisation, which would become the muscle of the civil rights movement. King became its first president and propelled him onto the national political stage. These powerful institutions would serve as organising and mobilising muscle for when the moment was right to act.

Building powerful movements is never easy. Rustin’s letters reveal the tensions he had to iron out between groups, to make the March on Washington happen. It would cost Rustin his own recognition, when the director of one of the most powerful coalitions refused to engage if Rustin was leading, due to his homosexuality. Rustin agreed to step back as director and play the deputy.

5. Timing is key

Rustin’s advice centred on timing and message: choose a time when you will not contribute to a backlash, or a specific opportunity has opened up. Then act with a clear message.

In 1946 the Supreme Court delivered the Irene Morgan Decision. Morgan was a black woman travelling on an interstate ticket. Travelling between one unsegregated state, to a state with forced segregation, Morgan did not move seats on the journey and was arrested. The Court ruled her arrest unjust. Rustin saw this moment as ripe for action and built a nationwide bus boycott. It was called ‘The Journey of Reconciliation.’ This was the first Freedom Ride, a full 13 years before Rosa Parks gained recognition.

In May 1963, the nation looked in horror, as Birmingham police turned fire hoses and attack dogs on children. Birmingham sparked the urgency for the March on Washington. Rustin saw this moment to act; he got on the phone to King, to organise the march he had in his mind for over a decade.

6. Pick your target and have a clear demand

Rustin’s actions always demonstrated a clear message centred on a unified and coherent theme. No-one should have to work out who your target is, what is the problem, and who has the power to make change happen.

In the section ‘What We Demand’, of the famous Organising manual number 2, Rustin made clear the ten concrete march demands of Government. Rustin’s actions from bus boycotts, to canteen sit-ins, to the March on Washington all had specific achievable demands, that were clear and understood by the public and their target.

7. Leadership means you develop others

Bayard Rustin with young people
Bayard Rustin, Image:

Rustin mentored a 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. when he was given the responsibility of the Montgomery bus boycott. King had no experience in organising and was young socks to this well-trained organiser. Rustin would use his knowledge, contacts, and organisational abilities, to train King into the man we all know today. Rustin was not only his mentor, but he would also be his ghostwriter, teacher, and nonviolence strategist.

When law and policy affect the people, train them how to navigate the system for themselves. Along with Ella Baker, Rustin would develop guides, run training and mentor people on their rights, how to organise and win change.

8. People you love will let you down

Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King by a staircase.
Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King Image: Monroe Frederick

Rustin mentored one of history’s most prominent leaders and faced division and exclusion. Many inside the movement argued his sexuality, and former ties to the Community Party in his early twenties compromised his effectiveness as an activist.

In 1953 Rustin was arrested for having sex with a man, at a time when gay sex was a crime in every state. He was sent to jail for 60 days. Following this, people on his team disassociated with him and he was fired from his role at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1960, Martin Luther King would cut ties with Rustin, after being blackmailed by Adam Clayton Powell. By 1963, King would bring Rustin back in. Rustin was tactically brilliant, visionary and King could not succeed without him.

9. Leaders are human

My best friends . . . have been beaten and assassinated. Yet, to remain human and to fulfil my commitment to a just society, I must continue to fight for the liberation of all men.
Bayard Rustin

Rustin was sharp, strategic, had fantastic hair and a beautiful tenor voice. He fell in love at a zebra crossing in San Francisco to his lifelong partner, Walter Naegle.

Rustin and his partner Walter Neagle in front of a fancy old car., dressed in matching outfits.
Rustin and his partner Walter Neagle Image: StoryCorps

Even in love, he was fighting for equality, and looking for cracks in the system. Gay people at the time had no protection in law; the idea of marriage at the time was inconceivable. Rustin legally adopted his partner, to protect his rights should anything happen to him.

Being human, means you also make mistakes. In Rustin’s later years, after decades of being one of the nations most important pacifists, Rustin would tell King to not condemn the war in Vietnam. King ignored Rustin and spoke out, in his famous speech at Riverside Church.

Key Democrats and union leaders who supported the war funded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, where Rustin worked. His deliberate silence around Vietnam lost him many followers. Rustin was ultimately a person of negotiation, and this disappointed many around him. Rustin believed there comes a time when activists must move into the corridors of power and influence policy. Followers of Rustin say his actions, made it possible for key black and brown Americans to move into politics.** President Obama is often quoted as being part of Rustin’s legacy.**

10. Be your authentic self even when the world’s not ready

Be your authentic self, whatever that is. Rustin was a gay, socialist, pacifist, black man. This did not stop him from his activism. People were not comfortable with him being authentic in who he was. It is not our job to make people feel comfortable with their prejudice, racism and hate.

Final thoughts

While Rustin was one of the key leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, his wonderful identity meant he did not fit the simple narrative of what makes a leader. Rustin was another diamond, in a world demanding square pegs.

In 2013 Barack Obama, the president whose elections the march made possible awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin, the highest civilian award in the United States. Rustin finally was recognised for his brilliance.

We still live in a world where systemic inequalities persist. There is still much of Rustin’s work left for all of us to do.

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