August 28th, 1963 promised to be a warm summer morning in Washington D.C. As the sun began to peek over the horizon, it was quiet on the National Mall. Too quiet for organizers of the historic March On Washington.
“Nobody knew exactly how many people would come,” recalls Norman Hill, a young activist and labor leader at the time.
Organizer and transportation director Rachelle Horowitz estimated 90,000 people would be there based on the number of buses that had been chartered.
Hill, Horowitz, and Joyce Ladner, then a coordinator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), spoke with Throughline, to remember their days working on the march under the leadership of Bayard Rustin, the civil rights pioneer behind the March on Washington.
Those who knew Rustin remember his charisma, his kindness, his slight British accent, and his tendency to break out in song. And they remember him as a master strategist. For decades before the march, Rustin had been organizing protests, marches and sit-ins, spreading the gospel of nonviolent resistance long before Dr. King came on the national stage. In fact, Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle, describes him as a “mentor” to Dr. King.
Rustin’s belief in nonviolence began when he was a child growing up with his grandmother, a Quaker, in Pennsylvania in the 1920s. It solidified in adulthood after he discovered the work of Indian revolutionary, Mahatma Gandhi. For most of his life, Rustin was the person behind-the-scenes, dreaming up transformative moments like the March On Washington. He wanted others, including Dr. King, to be the face of that dream.
Nearly 60 years later, Hill, Horowitz, and Ladner still remember waking up that August morning. They remember walking across the grass of the National Mall, hearing Bob Dylan — or Bobby, as Ladner calls him — perform. They remember the sound of the speeches over the loudspeaker system, which Horowitz says cost them a fortune. They remember watching John Lewis rewrite his speech up until the time he took the stage. And they remember watching as bus after bus pulled up, and one person became five, then a thousand, then tens of thousands.
“They were singing, they were happy and we knew it was going to be a success,” says Horowitz.
Ladner came from a small town in Mississippi, and when she looked out at the crowd she said she felt “a sense of awe and pride. It still feels a certain way, and I still get it.”
What Hill holds on to is that it was a march for jobs and freedom. “I think what is overlooked is that the thrust of the march had a class dimension as well as a civil rights dimension,” he says.
The crowd marched peacefully and without disturbance that day. It was an incredible feat of organizing that almost didn’t happen.
Patrick A. Burns/Getty Images
Just a few weeks before the march, Rustin had come under attack. He was an easy target: a socialist, a pacifist who’d refused to fight in WWII and went to prison for it, and a gay Black man at a time of intense homophobia. He’d been attacked before for being gay, each time forcing him to retreat out of the spotlight.
This time, the attacks came on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The segregationist senator Strom Thurmond accused Rustin of being a “sex-pervert” and “draft-dodger.” He hoped by discrediting Rustin he’d also put a stop to the march. But soon after, the director of the march and prominent leader of the civil rights movement, A. Philip Randolph, gave a press conference defending Rustin. And the march went on as planned.
For the remainder of his life, Rustin turned his attention toward issues like economic injustice, gay rights, and anti-colonialism. He received criticism from some within the civil rights movement for his political views, namely, his tepid opposition to the Vietnam War, his conservative stance on things like affirmative action, and his support for Israel. He died in New York City in 1987 on the outskirts of the movement.
Bayard Rustin was the sum of many, sometimes contradictory parts. And while his contributions are often overlooked, he was instrumental in the movement and the architect of one of the most influential protests in American history. In a way, that was his greatest gift: the ability to imagine a different world and rally everyday people to build that world with him.
If you would like to learn more about Bayard Rustin:
Contributors: Ramtin Arablouei, Julie Caine, Jamie York, Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Lawrence Wu, Parth Shah, Victor Yvellez