The 1963 March on Washington was a collaborative effort between several landmark organizers from just as many major civil rights groups. While the original idea came from A. Philip Randolph, and the March’s keynote speaker is famously Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the strongest coordinating force behind the march came from a man named Bayard Rustin.
Rustin has been characterized as “a brilliant strategist of nonviolent direct action protests.” His reputation and working relationship with Randolph got him the position as Deputy Director of the March. There are also several photographs of Rustin standing side by side with Dr. King. So why is it that only one of the influential Black civil rights leaders is reliably recognized?
Despite Rustin’s expertise with pacifism and mass organization, his homosexuality limited how far he could go. The March on Washington was a triumph after years of accusations and tarnished reputations.
In one specific instance, homophobia was weaponized against Bayard Rustin in order to intimidate Dr. King and Co. from marching on JFK’s 1960 Democratic National Convention. King was told that, if he did not call off the march protesting the disappointing position on civil rights, he would be accused of having an affair with known homosexual Bayard Rustin.
The threats led Dr. King to distance himself from Rustin. The decision was a political move, but also a personal betrayal that set up further distrust that even the 1963 March couldn’t undo. Rustin would forever be an organizer working behind the scenes.
SOURCES: NPS site, History.com, protest career.