Who Designed the March on Washington?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: This gay man was kept in the closet of the civil rights movement.

Bayard Rustin (left) speaking to administrative chairman Cleveland Robinson (right) (Wikimedia Commons)
Bayard Rustin (left) speaking to administrative chairman Cleveland Robinson (right) (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 44: Which civil rights leader and gay barrier-breaker was kept in the shadows by the civil rights movement establishment, and why? 

If you had been a bus captain en route to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, you would have known who its organizing genius was, and you wouldn’t have been surprised to see his picture on the cover of Life magazine a week later. Yet of all the leaders of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin lived and worked in the deepest shadows, not because he was a closeted gay man, but because he wasn’t trying to hide who he was. That, combined with his former ties to the Community Party, was considered to be a liability. 

Still, whatever his detractors said, there would always be that perfect day of the march, that beautiful, concentrated expression of Rustin’s decades of commitment to vociferous, but always nonviolent, protest. It was, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, the “greatest demonstration for freedom” in American history. And it is why, on this 50th anniversary, I ask that if you teach your children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.    

No Lonelier Man

There was no lonelier man in Washington, D.C., at 5:30 a.m. August 28, 1963, than Rustin. He had predicted a crowd of 100,000 marchers, and with only four and a half hours to go before the meet-up, he had his doubts. Would everything he had been working toward pan out? Would the coalition hang together? Would the march remain peaceful, thus defying the 4,000 troops President John F. Kennedy had ready in the suburbs, as Taylor Branch reminds us in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63?

Twenty-two years earlier, A. Phillip Randolph and Rustin had come very close to delivering on their plans for a first march as a way to pressure President Franklin Roosevelt into opening defense-industry hiring to blacks. Roosevelt was so alarmed by the specter of violence and the negative publicity during the “war against fascism” that a deal was reached before the march could even begin. Now, with the 1963 march about to begin, Rustin was forced to wonder, could they really pull this off? And would its impact help to achieve the goals of the movement? In a matter of hours, he would have his answers.

His Early Struggles

Bayard Taylor Rustin was born in West Chester, Pa., March 17, 1912. He had no relationship with his father, and his 16-year-old mother, Florence, was so young he thought she was his sister. From his grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, he took his Quaker “values,” which, in his words, “were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal,” according to Jervis Anderson in Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen.

As a teenager, Rustin wrote poems, played left tackle on the high school football team and, according to lore, staged an impromptu sit-in at a restaurant that would serve his white teammates but not him. When Rustin told his grandmother he preferred the company of young men to girls, she simply said, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.”

In 1937, Rustin moved to New York City after bouncing between Wilberforce University and Cheney State Teachers College. Enrolling at City College, he devoted himself to singing, performing with the Josh White Quartet and in the musical John Henry with Paul Robeson. He also joined the Young Communist League. Though he soon quit the party after it ordered him to cease protesting racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces, he was already on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.