Bayard Rustin: The Man Who Organized The March On Washington : Code Switch The strategist behind the 1963 march will posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. As a gay man, his position in the movement was questioned. But now he is considered "an amazing role model" for activists of color who are also gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
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Bayard Rustin: The Man Who Organized The March On Washington

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Bayard Rustin: The Man Who Organized The March On Washington

Bayard Rustin: The Man Who Organized The March On Washington

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The trailblazing strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington will receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. In this case, it's a posthumous award. Civil rights activists once counted on Bayard Rustin for his strategies, but they also tried to push him away because he was gay. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story about the man known as Mr. March on Washington.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: For 60 years, Bayard Rustin fought for peace and equal rights; demonstrating, organizing and protesting in the United States and around the world. In the summer of 1963, he was the main organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Speaker after speaker roused a crowd of 250,000, including Martin Luther King Jr., with his seminal "I Have A Dream" speech.


THE REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: No, we are not satisfied. And we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream...


CORLEY: Rustin had less than two months to organize what was the largest demonstration the country had ever seen, and he considered it one of the finest examples of nonviolent protest.


BAYARD RUSTIN: As we follow this form of mass action and strategic nonviolence, we will not only put pressure on the government, but we will put pressure on other groups which ought, by their nature, to be allied with us.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Bayard was one of a kind. And his talent was so enormous.

CORLEY: Washington, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was a law student in 1963, and a march volunteer. Bayard Rustin was her boss.

NORTON: The great achievement of the March on Washington is that Rustin had to work from the ground up. There had been many marches in the South, many demonstrations in the South. But calling people from all over the country to come to Washington, the capital of the United States, was unheard of.

CORLEY: Rustin grew up in Westchester, Pennsylvania. In college in the 1930s, he joined the Communist Youth League for a few years, attracted by their anti-racist efforts. Then he embraced socialism. He was a gay black man, tall, with high cheekbones, and a gifted singer. He played a bit part in a Broadway musical alongside Paul Robeson. And Rustin often sang for his audiences as he toured the country, conducting race-relations workshops.


RUSTIN: (Singing) Nobody knows my sorrow...

CORLEY: Rustin was considered a master organizer, a political intellectual, a pacifist who served time in prison for refusing to register for the draft. He created the first Freedom Rides, which challenging segregation on interstate buses, and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King.

John D'Emilio, Rustin's biographer, says he was content to remain behind the scenes.

JOHN D'EMILIO: I think of it as part of the Quaker heritage that he internalized. You don't push yourself forward. It doesn't matter if you get the credit for it. What is important is this notion of speaking truth to power.

CORLEY: Rustin had two strong mentors. A.J. Muste, the head of the pacifist organization the Fellowship for Reconciliation, hired Rustin as a youth secretary to conduct workshops and demonstrations against war and segregation. Rustin's other mentor was A. Philip Randolph, the head of the first predominantly black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Again, John D'Emilio.

D'EMILIO: What Rustin took away from Randolph, especially, is the recognition that economic issues and racial justice issues are completely intertwined.

CORLEY: In 1953, Rustin's homosexuality became a public problem after he was found having sex in a parked car with two men. He was arrested on a morals charge. Later, when he was chosen to organize the 1963 march, some civil rights activists objected. In an effort to discredit the march, segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond took to the Senate floor, where he called Rustin a communist, a draft dodger and a homosexual. Author D'Emilio says ironically, it became a rallying point for the civil rights leaders.

D'EMILIO: Because no one could appear to be on the side of Strom Thurmond, he created - unwittingly - the opportunity for Rustin's sexuality to stop being an issue.

CORLEY: The march was a success. And at its end, a triumphant Rustin stepped up to the microphone to read the demands that the leaders of the civil rights movement would take to President Kennedy.


RUSTIN: We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963!


CORLEY: Congress would go on to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Bill. Rustin wanted to move the civil rights agenda from protesting to politics, and to work within the system - blacks and whites together - to create jobs and other opportunities. His effort fell flat, stymied by a more militant generation and the dominant issue of the times, the Vietnam War.


RUSTIN: It has split the civil rights movement down the middle. It has caused many white people who were in it to say, that must wait now until we stop Vietnam...

CORLEY: In his later years, Bayard Rustin continued to speak out on a variety of fronts, and his personal life also changed.

WALTER NAEGLE: We met on a corner in Times Square.

CORLEY: Walter Naegle, Rustin's surviving partner, says in the final years of his life, Rustin became more involved in gay rights.

NAEGLE: He saw this as another challenge, another barrier that had to be broken down. And it was part of a larger struggle for human rights and for individual freedoms.

CORLEY: Or, as Rustin himself would put it...


RUSTIN: The barometer for judging the character of people, in regard human rights, is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian. The judgment as to whether you can trust the future, the social advancement - depending on people - will be judged on where they come out on that question.

CORLEY: Mandy Carter, with the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT civil rights group, says Bayard Rustin was a visionary, understanding the parallels in the civil rights struggle and the gay rights movement.

MANDY CARTER: For me and for a lot of us who are black and gay and lesbian, bi, trans, who see ourselves as social justice advocates as well, to have this person was such an amazing role model.

CORLEY: Carter says there was just no one like him. And she's delighted such a key individual in the civil rights movement is now being recognized with the nation's highest honor. Rustin died in 1987 in New York. from a ruptured appendix. He was 75.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.


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