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)

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Rustin traveled to Alabama to meet with King and expanded the march’s focus to “Jobs and Freedom.” From the march’s headquarters in New York, he looked forward to leading the planning coalition of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the National Urban League, the NAACP and Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But Rustin’s past again came into play when Roy Wilkins of the NAACP refused to allow Rustin to be the front man. “This march is of such importance that we must not put a person of his liabilities at the head,” Wilkins said of Rustin, according to D’Emilio. As a result, Randolph agreed to serve as the march’s director with Rustin as his deputy.

Their challenges were manifold: Unite feuding civil rights leaders, fend off opposition from Southern segregationists who opposed civil rights fend off opposition from Northern liberals who advocated a more cautious approach and figure out the practical logistics of the demonstration itself. On the last point, Rustin later said, “We planned out precisely the number of toilets that would be needed for a quarter of a million people … how many doctors, how many first aid stations, what people should bring with them to eat in their lunches,” according to D’Emilio.

The whole time Rustin feared interference from the Washington police and the FBI; it came from the Senate floor three weeks before kickoff when Strom Thurmond of South Carolina attacked Rustin personally. It didn’t matter that Thurmond was hiding a daughter he had fathered with an African-American woman who was a maid; Rustin was a gay ex-communist and, in 1963, reading from his FBI file made political hay.

Tensions in every direction persisted. John Lewis, one of the leaders of SNCC (now a longstanding congressman from Georgia) had prepared a militant speech for the event, reading in part, “The time will come when we will not confine our marching in Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.” To appease other speakers and refrain from alienating the Kennedy administration, Rustin and Randolph had to convince Lewis to tamp it down. The quarrel continued up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Before then, the marchers had to know how to get there — which brings us back to our bus captains. Imagine being one, scrambling over last-minute details, reading the now famous Organizing Manual No. 2 (pdf) that Rustin and his team distributed from New York. In 12 pages, it ran the gamut from the practical to the philosophical to the political: “Who is sponsoring the March; Why We March; Our Demands; How Our Demands Will be Presented in Congress; Who Will March; What Are Our Immediate Tasks; How Do I Get to Washington; The Schedule in Washington; How Do We Leave Washington; Signs and Banners; Food, Health and Sanitation Facilities; Children and Overnight Accommodation; Captains; Marshals; Transportation Report Form.”

In the section “What We Demand,” Rustin and his team were concrete in laying out the march’s 10 goals. Want to teach your children what the march was all about? It’s in that list.

The march itself, of course, turned out to be a tremendous success, including those glorious moments when the official estimate of 200,000 was announced (actually, there was as many as 300,000, says Life.com); when Marian and Mahalia sang; when Mrs. Medgar Evers paid tribute to “Negro Women Freedom Fighters”; when John Lewis and Dr. King spoke; and when Bayard Rustin read the march’s demands. And perhaps the most poignant statement of the power of nonviolence was that there were only four arrests, Taylor Branch writes in The King Years, all of them of white people. 

Afterward, the leaders of the Big Six met with President Kennedy at the White House. Rustin remained out of sight, though he and Randolph did make it onto the cover of Life Sept. 6.  Eight days later, four young girls went to their deaths in the Birmingham church bombing; in November, President Kennedy was gunned down, leaving President Lyndon Johnson to shuttle the Civil Rights Act through Congress, signing it in 1964, the same year Dr. King received the Nobel Prize, with Rustin planning the logistics of his trip to Oslo. It was, to say the least, history at its most dramatic, shocking — and unpredictable — at every turn.