This week, as the United States observes the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama is leading the nation in honoring one of the march’s most important figures, if not the most important of all.
This honoree is a man who fought all his life to ensure that the promise of equality for all Americans would not be a mere dream. Who knew from personal experience the horrors of prejudice and injustice, yet refused to be intimidated into keeping his unpopular and sometimes dangerous views to himself.
He was an indispensable leader throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Without him, the march we commemorate on Wednesday would hardly have been possible.
I speak, of course, of Bayard Rustin.
Fifty years out, one of the more unfortunate legacies of the March on Washington is the notion that it was all about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That on a muggy August afternoon in 1963, several hundred thousand supporters of racial equality spontaneously assembled at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. King declare, “I have a dream.”
In this “official” narrative, people such as Bayard Rustin have for decades been almost entirely left out. I certainly don’t remember his name popping up in my high school history textbook. There is no national holiday celebrating his birthday, nor are there streets bearing his name that cut across Harlem or Chicago’s South Side. He is, if not an invisible man, an unjustly overlooked man.
Perhaps that is finally changing. Rustin, who died in 1987, is among this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As well, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., currently boasts an exhibit about the March on Washington that pays scrupulous attention to the many men and women, beyond Dr. King, who were instrumental in bringing the idea of a mass demonstration to fruition.
Rustin’s role was as follows: Having previously organized one of the earliest “Freedom Rides” to protest bus segregation laws throughout the South, he was put in charge of drafting the program, recruiting activists and other marchers, coordinating the buses and trains to transport them all to Washington, and hiring marshals and traffic directors to ensure everything ran smoothly. All of these things he did more or less single-handedly.
In short: While the March on Washington owes its sterling reputation to Martin Luther King, it owes its very existence to Bayard Rustin.
My question: Why do you need me to tell you this? Why has such an essential character spent most of the last half-century being expunged from the history books?
The likeliest explanation for this is threefold: Rustin was a socialist. He was a draft dodger. And he was gay.
None of these would-be revelations was a secret at the time. He had been arrested and jailed in 1953 for engaging in “sex perversion,” i.e. consensual sex with another man. A lifelong pacifist, he had refused to serve in World War II. As for his political affiliations, he was a member of the Socialist Party of America for much of his adult life, becoming its chairman in 1972.
For these reasons, many within the Civil Rights Movement fought to prevent Rustin from playing such a leading role, including for the March on Washington. No less than Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, admonished Rustin to keep strictly behind the scenes, lest Wilkins and others be forced to answer for Rustin’s background during what was, after all, a rather delicate operation on the “winning hearts and minds” front.
And so we have one of the great ironies of the 1960s: A central figure in the fight for the rights of minority groups has been very nearly absent in the popular mind because he was a member of one too many minority groups.
It is useful to remember, in this celebratory week, that history is never as simple or as morally clear as we would prefer it to be. Like all the civil rights battles therein, it is a messy, complicated business whose participants are neither saints nor devils.
My hope, in light of Bayard Rustin finally getting his due, is that we make a greater effort to render our country’s most colorful episodes in a realistic, rather than idealistic, light. That we treat our heroes and villains as if they existed in all three dimensions, not as proverbial cardboard cutouts. That we forgo our usual national tendency never to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
After all, oftentimes the truth can make for a mighty good yarn as well.