This is the snapshot history has saved from that August day in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech … the sea of peaceful people, 250,000 of them, black and white together.
Standing behind Dr. King that day was Bayard Rustin, the strategist who organized the march, a singular, transformative moment for the civil rights movement.
At the end of the march, Rustin read a list of demands, including for effective civil rights legislation. But who remembers? Today, it's as if his name has been erased. "Everybody needs to know who this man is," said director George C. Wolfe. "He should be taught in every school."
Wolfe is director of the new film "Rustin." In theaters this week, and on Netflix November 17, the film stars Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, and tells the story behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Wolfe described Rustin as "an American hero, who not only contributed heavily to one of the most significant peaceful demonstrations that has ever happened in this country, but a man who also wrote the book on how to stage such an event."
A producer of the film is Higher Ground, former President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama's production company.
The former president told "Sunday Morning," "What I thought was important – and Michelle and I, you know, it's the reason that we were interested in this story – was this reminds us that the fight for justice is typically not just about one group of people or another group of people. It's often in tandem. We have to figure out how do we lift up all people?"
Obama, who was an organizer before he was a politician, said, "To see somebody who could bring the kind of strategic sense that helped to organize some of the seminal moments in the early civil rights movement, to learn about someone like that, did inspire me. Now I have to make a very clear caveat here: I never was able to organize as good as he organized! But it did get me thinking about my own role as somebody who could maybe work at a grassroots level and change the country from the bottom up."
Working out of a Harlem brownstone called the Utopia Neighborhood Club House, Rustin and a small staff pulled the march together in less than two months. Eleanor Holmes Norton (then a student at Yale Law School, now Washington, D.C.'s delegate in Congress) was tasked with finding buses to bring people to the march.
"Bayard was the real general here, and he acted like a general, telling us all what to do and when to do it and how to do it," Norton said. "You needed an organizer, but you needed somebody with charisma to make you want to follow him. That was his gift."
Asked to describe the day of the march, Norton replied, "It was the most gratifying day I can ever remember. Without him, there wouldn't have been the march. Without the march, there wouldn't have been the movement. Without the movement, you wouldn't have had the '64 Civil Rights Act, the '65 Voting Rights Act."
The week after the march, Rustin was on the cover of Life magazine:
So, how could a man that important be marginalized?
According to Walter Naegle, "Bayard was one of these people that had a lot of baggage. He was a member of the Young Communist League when he was young. He was a pacifist during World War II, went to jail. And he was a gay man."
Naegle was his partner for ten years, before Rustin's death in 1987 at age 75. "Being gay was kind of like the nail in the coffin," Naegle said. "So, I think it had a tremendous impact on his ability to rise within the movements where he worked."
The man who convinced Martin Luther King to embrace non-violence as a tactic was ultimately fired by his close friend. Michael Long, who has written extensively about Rustin, said, "The great civil rights leader of the U.S. panics. This is a homophobic society, we have to remember, that King is living in, and he fears blowback on the movement, on the civil rights movement. He fears blowback on himself."
Rustin's pacifism and interest in non-violence came primarily from his grandmother, Julia Rustin, a Quaker in West Chester, Pa., who raised him. Long said, "When somebody asked him why he did what he did, he would often say, 'Because I'm a Quaker. Because I believe in equality, human dignity, the unity of the human family, and peace.'"
Rustin collected art, antiques, and walking sticks. He recorded an album of spirituals and (believe it or not) Elizabethan songs – the same Bayard Rustin whose involvement in non-violent protests got him beaten. He was arrested more than 20 times and jailed.
After the March on Washington, Rustin made the case that activists should move from street protests to the corridors of power and practice politics. But the movement didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye with him on that strategy. He was opposed to the Black Power movement, and even Black Studies programs, arguing they further isolated Black people.
And it all cost him.
But now, history has begun to take another look at Bayard Rustin. In 2013, 50 years after the March on Washington, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who said, "Today, we honor Bayard Rustin's memory, by taking our place in his march towards true equality."
Naegle said of the honor, "This was symbolic of, kind of, bringing Bayard in from the shadows, where he had been for so many years, and acknowledging his contribution."
When asked if he believes that, with the release of the film, people will no longer say, "Bayard who?," Barack Obama replied, "My hope is that he gets the credit that is due to him. What I hope Rustin achieves is to remind this new, young generation of activists how much they can accomplish."
Bayard Rustin has been credited with coining the phrase "Speaking truth to power." He did that all his life.
For more info:
- "Rustin" is theaters November 3, and streams on Netflix beginning November 17
- Higher Ground Productions
- "Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics," edited by Michael G. Long (NYU Press), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Joseph Frandino.
To watch a trailer for "Rustin" click on the video player below:
- ("Sunday Morning")
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