- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2014

The historic 1963 March on Washington has come to represent the defining moment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights efforts — but much of the actual planning, fundraising and logistics work behind that monumental day fell to a trusted and longtime aide named Bayard Rustin.

Long considered a forgotten figure in civil rights history, Rustin is winning renewed attention nearly three decades after his death.

Though he died in 1987, Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November, and a collection of his many boxes containing personal records — along with new insights into the march and civil rights movement — sits at the Library of Congress offering little-known insights into King’s historic day.

While today the march is viewed as a historical success, papers in Rustin’s collection — including hundreds reviewed by The Washington Times — reflect the excitement, uncertainty and anxiety organizers and participants felt in the days before and after the march.

“Among us, on August 28th, will be thousands of people who have traveled long distances to voice their demand for freedom,” Rustin wrote in a memo as the event approached.

“They will come by every conceivable means of transportation. They will travel long hours. They have contributed money to ensure the success of this day. Their business here is nothing less than the most serious, most urgent, most grave business that can engage man — human freedom.”

Days later, as the congratulations poured in, some marchers wrote Rustin with stories that showed how far the civil rights movement still had to go.

On a bus ride back home to Brooklyn, NY, 41 members of the Friendship Baptist Church stopped at a restaurant in White Marsh, Md., along Route 40.

They were told only truck drivers could eat there, but then they saw a white child of about 14 years old eating lunch at the counter with a number of white women, according to a letter in Rustin’s papers.

Church members who happened to be card-carrying union truck drivers showed their cards, but it didn’t help. They were turned away and the restaurant workers refused to say if the boy and women were truck drivers, too.

In awarding Rustin the Medal of Freedom last fall, President Obama said Rustin had been denied his place in history because he was openly gay. He told the story of how early on the morning of the March on Washington, the National Mall was far from full, fueling speculation the event would be an embarrassing flop. Rustin, Mr. Obama said, looked down at a piece of paper and reassured reporters that everything was just fine — except the paper, the story goes, was blank.

“He didn’t know how it was going to work out, but Bayard had an unshakeable optimism, nerves of steel and most importantly, a faith that if the cause is just and people are organized, nothing can stand in our way,” Mr. Obama said.

According to archived records, Rustin handled just about everything behind the scenes. He lined up speakers, from dignitaries offering inspiring words to figuring out how to pay the $16,600 bill to set up public address speakers along the Mall.

And reflecting King’s rise as a national figure, some of Rustin’s early correspondence deals with the logistics of the bus strike in Montgomery, Ala.

Then, among Rustin’s papers, there is the tale of one of the more bizarre run-ins with law enforcement involving a civil rights leader.

Rustin, an avid collector of walking canes, was arrested with a cane that, unbeknownst to him, turned out to double as a sword.

The charges were dismissed.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide