Meet Bayard Rustin, the Architect of the March on Washington
His longtime partner on the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the civil rights movement.
Patrick A. Burns/Getty Images
Published August 28, 2018
Published 21 days ago
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, is remembered as a signal event in U.S. history, a massive rally for African-American civil rights that served as the backdrop for Martin Luther King Jr.'s immortal "I Have a Dream" speech. Without Bayard Rustin, the March might not have happened at all. [Above: Rustin in Brooklyn in 1964.]
For many years a forgotten man in the civil-rights struggle, Rustin was the chief architect of the March. A charismatic leader and a brilliant organizer, he planned every detail, from the security to the transportation to the portable toilets, to ensure that the estimated crowd of 250,000 assembled smoothly and marched peaceably.
Rustin was a professional organizer, an anti-war pacifist, a labor activist, and a practitioner of nonviolent protest. He was also an unabashed gay man, a fact that made his place in the civil-rights movement contentious over the years. Rustin, however, was never less than he was. "He had a strong sense of his own worth and intelligence," says his longtime partner, Walter Naegle, who spoke to FOTO for the 55th anniversary of the March. "He didn't worry about what other people thought or whether people recognized him. He was concerned about what was good for the movement as opposed to what was good for him." Here, a primer on who Rustin was and why he mattered so much.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveMASTER PLANNERNaegle credits Rustin's strong moral compass to his childhood growing up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Born in 1912 to a teenaged single mother, he was raised by his grandparents and found an early touchstone in his grandmother, Julia, an activist herself who raised Bayard in the Quaker tradition. This would have a deep and lasting effect on his approach to activism. "He learned very early on to take individuals where they were and not to lord yourself over other people," says Naegle. "When he was organizing, very often he was in a leadership position. But it wasn't in an authoritarian, top-down kind of model — it was more collective." Above: Rustin showing the map of the March area.Donaldson Collection/Getty ImagesTHE PACIFISTRustin knew he was gay from a young age and, as the story went, had at least tacit acceptance from his grandmother. (He'd later tell the Village Voice that he "never felt it necessary to do a great deal of pretending.") He moved to New York in 1937 and launched himself into the rich Harlem cultural and political scene. A beautiful singer, he performed in the musical "John Henry" starring Paul Robeson, among other gigs, and moved in Harlem's gay circles, carving out the notion of an open life. He joined the Communist movement for a time, before ultimately breaking with the party, and became a trusted lieutenant of labor and civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph, a professional relationship that would last for decades. He also remained committed to the Quaker ideals of pacifism, working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an organization steeped in the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Rustin’s commitment was profound: In 1943, he refused to comply with his draft notice and was later sentenced to a three-year term in federal prison. (Above: A mugshot from 1945.)
It was another stint in jail, however, that would haunt Rustin's life. In 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, California, for having sex with another man in a car. "If you look at it in the context of his times, yes, he was acting out, but he wasn't acting out any differently from the way straight people would," says Naegle. "It's just when they got caught, they got slapped on the wrist and sent home to their parents. When Bayard got caught, he was put in the slammer for 60 days." For the next several decades, the arrest was used as a bludgeon to threaten humiliation for both him and any civil-rights leaders or events he was involved with.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty ImagesTHE ADVISORRustin and Martin Luther King Jr. first worked together during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956. King, then only 26 years old, was just becoming a national figure. Rustin arrived as an older, more experienced organizer who helped guide King in the tenets of peaceful protest. (In a moment that was dramatized in the 2001 movie "Boycott," Rustin pointed out that King couldn't exactly be the leader of a nonviolent movement when his house was full of guns.) Rustin remained in King's circle of advisors, though his place in the movement could be fraught: Rustin was alternately embraced and rejected depending on how heated or embarrassing the rhetoric around his sexuality became. "There is no question in my mind that there was considerable prejudice amongst a number of people I worked with," said Rustin in a 1987 interview published in "A Time on Two Crosses." "They would look at me soulfully and say, 'Surely you don't want to go through any more humiliation?' Well, I wasn't humiliated."Buyenlarge/Getty ImagesJOBS AND FREEDOMWhen it came time for the 1963 March, however, Rustin's talents overcame any objections to him personally. "This was going to be a massively complex undertaking, and there was no one more able to pull it together than Bayard Rustin," wrote March leader and future congressman John Lewis in his memoir. When Randolph was made the director of the event, he immediately made Rustin his deputy. The March, the seeds of which were planted back in the 1940s, was initially focused on economic and labor issues before expanding to the "Freedom" part of the title. It also became, in many ways, less radical, with the leaders abandoning more controversial activities like civil disobedience. "The young radical Bayard might've regretted a little bit of that," says Naegle. "But because of the way things went and the result of it, I don’t think he had any regrets. Are you going to worry about being politically pure for yourself? Or are you going to try to make a larger impact on society? He had to face that a number of times." Above: Rustin with the chairman of the March committee, labor activist Cleveland Robinson.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveDETAILS, DETAILSRustin was a master at coordinating the logistical details and the loftier themes. "One thing he used to say to me was 'You have to sort of assume everybody is, for lack of a better word, stupid.' And he was first — he didn’t let himself off the hook," says Naegle. "You can't make assumptions that people are going to know or have the background of knowledge that you might have." As just an example of this, the March's official manual is a marvel of breadth and clarity, covering everything from the overall grievances (the "racism and economic deprivation" that was robbing all of America) to suggested box lunches (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and "a brownie or plain cake.") Above: Prepping a group of marshals before the March.Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesTHE THREATSPredictably, Rustin again became the target of innuendo from forces who wanted to thwart the March. Weeks before the March, segregationist Strom Thurmond brought up Rustin’s conviction for "sex perversion" on the Senate floor. (He'd already decried the March itself, worrying aloud that it would embarrass the United States and saying, "The Negroes in this country own more refrigerators and more automobiles than they do in any other country.") Randolph and King, however, stood by Rustin. Above: Rustin with activist and minister Norman Thomas.Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesTHE BIG DAYIn the 2003 documentary about Rustin, "Brother Outsider," there's a later interview with Rustin who recalled the terrifying early hours of August 28. "I remember at 5:30 in the morning, I was out on the Mall," a white-haired Rustin said. "And the press was surrounding me and saying, 'Mr. Rustin, Mr. Rustin, what's happening? You said there would be a quarter of a million people here and there are scarcely a half-dozen here.' I remember taking out of my pocket a blank sheet of paper and taking my watch out of the other pocket. I looked at my watch and the blank sheet of paper, and I said, 'Gentlemen, everything is going according to Hoyle.' I was terrified that people weren’t going to show up." He needn’t have worried: By the end of the day, an estimated 250,000 people, mostly black but with a substantial number of white participants, gathered on the Mall and the surrounding area, making it at the time the largest-ever gathering for civil rights. (Go here to read more about the March on Washington.) Above: An aerial view of the March.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveTHE DEPUTY SPEAKSMusicians like Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan performed between speakers like Lewis, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and Randolph. Introduced by actor Ossie Davis, Rustin himself spoke, laying out the movement’s principles: "The first demand is that we have effective civil rights legislation, no compromise, no filibuster!" Above: Rustin speaking at the Lincoln Memorial.Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images'I HAVE A DREAM'The centerpiece of the event, of course, was King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. You can listen to the whole thing here.MPI/Getty ImagesPRESIDENTIAL MEETINGBy any measure, the March was a triumph, and much of that was due to the clear message and preparations. The AP story from the day poignantly described the tens of thousands who arrived by train, plane, bus, car, and on foot: "As they headed homeward tonight, the small army of police and National Guardsmen mustered to cope with feared disorder could report that only three arrests had been made — and not one of these was a demonstrator." Afterward, the leaders of the March met with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Kennedy had proposed a civil rights bill that June, and though he'd originally opposed the March, there was hope the success of the event would give the bill momentum. Kennedy said in a statement, "The cause of 20 million Negroes has been advanced by the program conducted so appropriately before the Nation's shrine to the Great Emancipator, but even more significant is the contribution to all mankind."Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesALL COVEREDRandolph and Rustin landed on the cover of LIFE magazine for their efforts. "Once you're on the cover of LIFE, you're out of the shadows to a degree," says Naegle. "It led to a higher public profile for him, and a lot more invitations to speak. People started referring to him as Mr. March."Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty ImagesKING'S CIRCLERustin remained an advisor for the rest of King’s life. After his murder in 1968, Rustin flew to Memphis to organize the memorial march. Above: Rustin looks on as Coretta Scott King speaks after the march in Memphis.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFACE IN A CROWDNaegle says that Rustin didn’t mind his behind-the-scenes place in the movement. "After the March, he achieved a certain visibility, especially locally here in New York, but not to the degree that he ever had to have people around him or handlers or a chauffeur or that kind of nonsense," he says. "He liked to be free of all of that, to be able to walk around the city pretty anonymously — just put on a pair of jeans and go down to the Village and go in and out of the antique shops on the weekend."Bob McDonaldLATE IN LIFE LOVENaegle met Rustin in New York in 1977. He was 27 years old and Rustin was 64, but despite the 37-year age gap, they were immediately drawn to each other and were together for the rest of Rustin’s life. In an era when gay marriage wasn’t even a dream, Rustin was concerned about protecting his younger partner, so he legally adopted him in 1982. (This wasn’t unheard of for gay couples at the time.) "Gay people had no protection," Naegle said in a 2015 oral history. "That was the only thing we could do to legalize our relationship." Above: Rustin and Naegle in 1982 standing near Rustin's Morgan in upstate New York.Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty ImagesTHE ACTIVIST LIFEIn his later years, Rustin fought for human rights of all stripes. As head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, he was heavily involved in labor and union issues; he served as an election monitor in El Salvador, Barbados, and Zimbabwe, among other countries; he mobilized against apartheid in South Africa; he worked for the rights of Indochinese refugees. Naegle remembers reading about Rustin before he met him and being drawn towards that message of universal rights. "Bayard was concerned on the broader issue of human development and the family of all people," says Naegle. "It wasn’t just 'my group, my issue.' He had a broad view of the world." Toward the end of his life, Rustin even got involved in gay rights, becoming an elder statesman to the burgeoning movement that owed so much to the civil rights struggles of the generation before. Above: Speaking in Memphis in 1977.Patrick A. Burns/Getty ImagesBAYARD'S PASSINGShortly after a trip to Haiti in 1987, Rustin died at the age of 75 following complications from a surgery. In the short documentary "Bayard & Me," Naegle says, "I remember calling people and instead of saying 'I've lost Bayard,' I would say, 'We've lost Bayard.' Because really, it was a loss to the world. It was a loss to the society." Rustin's legacy has only grown in the intervening years, and Naegle accepted a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Rustin’s behalf from President Barack Obama in 2013. Naegle says if Rustin were alive now, he'd very much be involved with the struggle for refugee and immigrant rights and fights against economic inequality — and very much concerned with attacks on the press.
Naegle also wants people to remember that Rustin's message of nonviolence and cooperation wasn’t always a welcome one in the tumultuous 1960s when there was a constant debate between compromise on the one hand and revolution on the other. "It's important to remember that that's who he was," says Naegle. "He was about building an interracial, diverse society which respected everybody's rights, and to build it by peaceful means and through love. That was the message that was instilled with him when he was a child and that he carried through until he died."