As the new ‘Rustin’ biopic shows, the great organizer of the 1963 March on Washington was always working to join more people together in the struggle for greater justice and peace.
By George Lakey
After going to see the new biopic “Rustin,” now out on Netflix, I left the theater finding the film to be as dramatic as I remembered the man himself. Drama was Bayard’s personal style, but it was also inherent in the focus of the film: Bayard’s brilliance in being lead organizer for the 1963 mass March on Washington.
In “Rustin,” we get to see him (played by Colman Domingo) again and again challenging expectations, using his keen “organizer’s nose” to sense what was possible even though most people around him couldn’t or didn’t want to see it.
As a teenager in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Bayard was already challenging expectations: He was both gay and the star of his high school’s football team. When, in 2006, West Chester named its new high school after Bayard, the act stirred the town’s homophobes to object loudly. I felt connected to the town’s controversy partly because I started college in West Chester, not long before meeting Bayard.
While in the town recently, I noted a plaque in front of the old movie theater that acknowledges another of Bayard’s feats in his high school days: He defied the theater’s practice of racial segregation, on his own, by leaving the balcony in the middle of a movie and moving his Black self to a seat in the whites-only first floor. Police removed him from the theater but decided not to arrest; after all, how would his high school team manage without Rustin at its next game?
I seemed to follow Bayard around. I graduated from Cheyney State, a college very near West Chester, where Bayard had earlier been a student. Cheyney is America’s oldest historically Black university. While there, Bayard continued his practice of challenging convention. He was open about his gayness until Cheyney’s beloved president Leslie Pinckney Hill took him aside, stressed to Bayard his potential as a Black leader, and explained he was damaging his future role by his openness.
As I later got to know him, I came to recognize something basic in Bayard’s process: testing limits through action, being willing to go out ahead, and retaining the goal of liberation even while temporarily accommodating the rude reality in order to accomplish something else.
Winning requires a team
On his high school football team Bayard knew he couldn’t win by himself. In the ‘60s, when I was with him in activist organizations making decisions, I noticed an interesting pattern of his in meetings. He’d start with his flamboyant self, stating his views with eloquence and passion. Multiple points of view were expressed by others. By the time the chair announced the decision, even if it was different from his initial position, Bayard was usually on board. And if his organizing skills were required to do what we’d decided, we knew he’d do a brilliant job.
He accepted that a powerful mass movement cannot consist of individualists going their own way. If being an activist is only about one’s personal integrity, it limits us. If we deeply want to make a difference — to win more justice or peace — we need to combine with others. Bayard was a passionate person, but for him winning wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was about gaining victories for oppressed people, for people hurt by today’s institutions.
I remember an informal moment when we were shooting the breeze, and I asked him about the organizing meeting we’d just concluded. “Why were you so low-key about your own views this time, focusing on making sure we moved toward consensus?” I asked.
“Because A.J. wasn’t here,” Bayard replied.
A.J. Muste, a key mentor for Bayard, was an older radical pacifist organizer who had extraordinary consensus-building skills. I got it: Bayard knew that the rest of us, relying on Muste to forge our unity, might need Bayard to play that role in Muste’s absence.
Bayard was a performer (a professional-level singer) who knew more than one tune. To win, social movements also needed to know more than one tune — and along with drama, harmony is sometimes essential.
Who’s on the team?
I was as flabbergasted as anyone when Bayard stopped speaking out against the Vietnam War. He was one of my teachers about pacifism and the necessity for war resistance. A recent play, “Bayard Rustin Inside Ashland,” focuses on his imprisonment early in his life as a conscientious objector. When the Vietnam War escalated in the ‘60s I continued my practice of taking the train to New York for peace movement meetings, but now Bayard was often absent. The civil rights movement was expanding rapidly, and he was moving in circles overlapping with the Democratic Party, whose president was presiding over the war.
He’d famously been the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, in which Dr. King gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Organizing that one-day event didn’t mean Bayard wanted to abandon the successful strategy of the civil rights movement, which was organizing direct action campaigns. The movement was succeeding because it didn’t waste its time on one-off protests, instead putting its energy into direct action campaigns like bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins.
The 1963 march, however, had a different objective: coalition-building, through the organizing itself. The Washington event was the dream of Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, intended to grow the movement beyond “the usual suspects.” Significantly, it was called a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” The goal was to enroll white workers in unions like the United Auto Workers to join the movement.
Randolph, the “grand old man” of the civil rights movement, made sure that Bayard got the primary job of making the march go well. Superb organizer that Bayard was, for this event he and Randolph would be eliciting cooperation not only among civil rights organizations — itself plenty challenging — but also labor organizations and liberal allies whose brand of politics included the Democratic Party.
The planned location of Washington, D.C., brought its own complications with racist overtones. The closer the date came, the more alarm grew among white people in D.C. I imagined the conversations: “Tens of thousands of Black people coming to our city — Yikes! We’d better plan to leave town and avoid the riot!”
And then there was the question of what President John F. Kennedy would do about it. JFK finally agreed to meet with the leaders of the main organizations sponsoring the march. However, the chair of the most radical of the civil rights groups organizing the march, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, had prepared a hard-hitting speech for the event that in Bayard’s view was likely to destroy the chance to keep the door open to the White House. Even while I was standing in the rapidly growing crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, waiting to hear a succession of inspiring speeches, Bayard was behind the Memorial arguing with young SNCC chair John Lewis that Lewis needed to drop the most inflammatory parts of his speech.
Lewis agreed, and the event moved into history.
After Martin Luther King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” speech, I moved with exhilaration toward our bus. I ran into John Hoover, an Oberlin College student I knew who stood out in the crowd because of the dejected look on his face. “What’s your problem?” I asked.
“I was one of the nonviolent peacekeepers,” John replied, “and our training was terrific, so I was eager to use it to handle something in the crowd.”
Frown deepening, he continued, “There was no trouble — I didn’t get to do anything!”
A challenge to his public identity as a pacifist
What I didn’t understand at the time was how Bayard was shifting his conception of what his “team” was. This high school football star had gotten plenty of coaching from A.J., and later from Randolph, and understood his own impact on history was connected to his ability to relate to a team. Now, however, his conception of his team was expanding.
Early in the Vietnam War Bayard was as keen as the rest of us to denounce it, and a lot more eloquent than I was. Then I noticed him quieting down. The civil rights coalition was increasing its support from white liberals, but liberals were split on the war, as was the labor movement. The head of the AFL-CIO was a hawk.
Movements need to grow to make a larger impact, and racism is resistant, hard to change. Bayard knew his civil rights team needed to add more allies who had previously not been available. That required, however, not alarming the many liberals who supported the war. Bayard was parting company with his fiercely anti-Vietnam War mentor Muste.
I heard that Bayard organized a top-dollar fundraising party at Leonard Bernstein’s home for Martin Luther King’s organization, and cautioned Dr. King not to criticize the Vietnam War during his remarks. King disregarded Bayard’s advice, however, and Bayard told King later that his Vietnam statement cost a significant decline in donations from white liberals.
My one disappointing phone call from Bayard came when I volunteered to join the Phoenix crew sailing to Vietnam with medical aid to dramatize our opposition to the war. By that time, 1967, I was busy teaching activist organizing at the Martin Luther King School of Social Change, a graduate division of a theological seminary. Bayard had been drawn into our discussions that built the school’s curriculum.
The seminary president, worried about the blowback for the seminary that I might cause by participating in the controversial Vietnam peace voyage, persuaded Bayard to urge me to change my mind. However, I rejected Bayard’s pitch, and was upset that he attempted it. I told the president I was joining the voyage. Outraged, the president threatened to fire me, then backed off when our students threatened to go on strike if he did.
Bayard’s telephone call felt to me like a betrayal of what we had in common. What I didn’t realize was that he was in one sense remaining consistent: He was working, as he usually did, to keep “the team” together. His definition of who was on the team, however, was bigger than mine.
That lesson might help a lot of us to understand differences that crop up when we activists work together: How much are we influenced by the reference group we have in our heads? Still, looking back I feel sad that Bayard lost some old comrades in his effort to keep his now expanded team working together.
My way of thinking about Bayard cheered up later, however, when Bayard came out publicly and proudly as gay. Yes, he was continuing to expand his definition of his team! How could I, having publicly come out as a gay man myself, not celebrate his latest choice?
George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest book is the memoir Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice.
This article was published on November 17, 2023 at WagingNonviolence.