Rustin Organizes the March on Washington

Bayard Rustin, a gay African American, organized the 1963 March on Washington, the event where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most important orations in U.S. history. The march had been the largest demonstration on the nation’s capital.

Summary of Event

Meeting in New York City on July 2, 1963, a coalition of key civil rights leaders planned a march on Washington, D.C. Coalition members included Martin Luther King, Jr., founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); A. Philip Randolph (founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice president of the AFL-CIO); Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, Jr., of the Urban League; John Lewis from the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); and James Farmer from CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Congress of Racial Equality
Racial Equality, Congress of
[kw]Rustin Organizes the March on Washington (July 2-Aug. 28, 1963)
[kw]March on Washington, Rustin Organizes the (July 2-Aug. 28, 1963)
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March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)
African Americans;and political activism[political activism]
Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin and
Homophobia;in Civil Rights movement[Civil Rights movement]
Political activism;marches
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[c]Marches, protests, and riots;July 2-Aug. 28, 1963: Rustin Organizes the March on Washington[0580]
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[c]Race and ethnicity;July 2-Aug. 28, 1963: Rustin Organizes the March on Washington[0580]
Rustin, Bayard
King, Martin Luther, Jr.
Randolph, A. Philip

Bayard Rustin at a news conference before the March on Washington in August, 1963.

(Library of Congress)

After debate, the group selected Bayard Rustin, the founder of CORE, to coordinate the march. The official March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom director, Randolph, an activist labor leader and civil rights veteran, supported Rustin to work on his behalf as chief march planner, which Bayard successfully did in only two months.

Within the first weeks of planning, Rustin had an organizing manual written and two thousand copies distributed to civil rights leaders in strategic locations throughout the United States. Funds were raised by collecting large and small donations and through sales of buttons and an official memento that consisted of a portfolio of photographs. By mid-August, 175,000 buttons had been purchased by supporters for twenty-five cents each, and 40,000 portfolios had been printed.

Randolph’s and Rustin’s collaboration, however, had begun in 1941, when Randolph, with Rustin’s assistance, planned a March on Washington to protest racism in the U.S. armed forces. The 1941 march never materialized, however, because at the last moment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order protecting African American rights. Rustin continued to organize after the 1963 March on Washington, and in 1964, he was involved in the extensive New York City school boycott to protest continued segregation in the city’s schools.

In the mid-1950’s, lesbian writer and activist Lillian Smith Smith, Lillian pressed Rustin to assist King in developing Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance for the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Smith was the internationally acclaimed author of the controversial 1944 novel Strange Fruit—the tale of lynching in a small Southern town—and was the companion of Paula Snelling, a professor at the University of Georgia. In 1964, Smith published Our Faces, Our Words, a work that extolled the principles of nonviolence that had become a fundamental part of the Civil Rights movement, in large part through the influence of Rustin. Smith had asked Rustin to assist King because of his understanding of nonviolence, which originated in his family’s ties to the pacifist church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Rustin’s philosophy of nonviolence had deepened during his periodic travels to India and Africa between 1947 and 1952 to explore the peaceful reistance embedded in independence movements. By the late 1950’s, Rustin had become a speechwriter, political adviser, and confidant of King, and he was instrumental in bringing Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American Civil Rights movement.

Rustin’s life as an African American as well as a gay person placed him in many tense and dangerous situations. Being gay during a fiercely homophobic and bigoted time in U.S. history led him to voice concerns about the civil rights denied to people because of their sexual orientation. As a black man he was engaged in the civil rights struggle for African American freedom—political and economic. White segregationists such as Strom Thurmond, Thurmond, Strom a U.S. senator from South Carolina, used Rustin’s homosexuality to try to discredit the Civil Rights movement. The term “communist” was used by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and others in their attempts to block the march and to discredit King.

In July, 1963, Thurmond attacked the march on the floor of the U.S. Senate, using Rustin’s sexual orientation, namely his arrest on charges of public indecency in Pasadena, California, in 1953, as his main rhetorical weapon. Thurmond also attacked Rustin’s pacifism (he “dodged” the draft) and his former Communist Party affiliation, all to dishonor him and the Civil Rights movement. In a similar way, Senator Jesse Helms Helms, Jesse of North Carolina later smeared Rustin’s reputation.


The 1963 March on Washington, held on August 28, was the culmination of more than two decades of civil rights struggles by churches, labor organizations, and social-justice advocates. The march focused on civil rights and national economic demands and galvanized the Civil Rights movement unlike any event up to that time, bringing as many as a quarter of a million people into the streets under Rustin’s organizational leadership.

Rustin was implicated in some of the political strife within the Civil Rights movement itself. In 1985, during an interview for an oral history project at Columbia University, he revealed that in 1960, Harlem congressmember Adam Clayton Powell Powell, Adam Clayton threatened to expose his homosexuality. The event led King to publicly disassociate himself from Rustin for a period of time.

Like a number of other civil rights leaders, Rustin refused to take up identity politics and was labeled an “Uncle Tom” by radical militants of the Black Power movement Black Power movement, Bayard Rustin and —a charge used to show disapproval of the tactics of often older, traditional, religious African Americans.

Always controversial, Rustin alienated some in the black community because he was critical of affirmative action programs and the development of black studies departments in U.S. colleges and universities. He alienated himself from liberals because of his support of Israel. Rustin’s homosexuality appears to have been particularly troublesome for Roy Wilkins, a key figure who played a major role in the preparation of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the case that led to legally mandated desegregation of schools in the United States.

For his efforts to stop segregation in interstate travel, in 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave Rustin the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy. Throughout his life he was an outspoken advocate of freedom and democracy, a passion that took him to Chile, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, Poland, and Zimbabwe as a delegate for Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Wilkie, and other Americans concerned with the mounting threats to peace and democracy around the world. In this capacity, Rustin helped to monitor elections and the status of human rights.

Shortly before Rustin died of cardiac arrest on August 24, 1987, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, he had compared the black struggle with the fight for gay and lesbian rights. He noted one major difference: In the black struggle, gaining rights under the law had to be joined with economic relief. Citing King, he said that getting into a restaurant was only half the fight—having the money to buy food was the other part of the equation. Human rights in the African American struggle included economic and social rights. For gays and lesbians, Rustin felt that the struggle was about prejudice under the law only.

In the early twenty-first century, the relationship between African American civil rights and rights for sexual minorities is still being debated. One point is seldom argued, however, when comparing the struggles of people of color with those of sexual minorities—a truth found in a statement Rustin made in November, 1960. In an interview, together with Malcolm X, at radio station WRAI in New York, Bayard said, “it is quite impossible for people to struggle creatively if they do not truly believe in themselves.”

In tireless toil, troubles, opprobrium, and the face of death, Bayard Rustin never stopped believing in himself—even when those around him had ceased to believe in him. This is the hallmark of Rustin, the black gay man who was at the center of the African American freedom struggle. March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)
African Americans;and political activism[political activism]
Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin and
Homophobia;in Civil Rights movement[Civil Rights movement]
Political activism;marches

Further Reading

  • Anderson, J. Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen—A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
  • “Bayard Rustin, African American Gay Hero.” In OUT in All Directions: An Almanac of Gay and Lesbian America, edited by Lynn Witt, Sherry Thomas, and Eric Marcus. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
  • “Bayard Rustin: Obituary.” The New Republic, September 28, 1987, 10.

  • Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, producers and directors. Independent Television Service, the National Black Programming Consortium, KQED. South Burlington, Vt.: California Newsreel, 2002. Video recording.
  • D’Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. New York: Free Press, 2003.
  • Edwin, Ed. “The Reminiscences of Bayard Rustin.” In Adam’s Friends and Foes: Bayard Rustin (February 28, 1985). New York: Columbia University, Oral History Office. http://c250.columbia .edu/c250_celebrates/harlem_history/rustin_p .html.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. “Blacklash.” In The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, edited by Larry Gross and James D. Woods. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Haskins, J. Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Hyperion Press, 1997.
  • Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-1968. Foreword by Myrlie Evers-Williams. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.
  • Levine, D. Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
  • Rollins, Avon, Sr. “The March on Washington Remembered.” rolin.htm.
  • Rustin, Bayard. Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971.
  • _______. Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Edited by D. W. Carbado and D. Weise. San Francisco, Calif.: Cleis Press, 2003.

1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room

June 28, 1970: First Lesbian and Gay Pride March in the United States

November 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

April, 1977: Combahee River Collective Issues “A Black Feminist Statement”

October 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

September, 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes

May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier

1990: United Lesbians of African Heritage Is Founded