The man behind the March on Washington: Bayard Rustin

A view of over 200,000 marchers along the Capitol mall on August 28, 1963. Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s right-hand man, organized the March on Washington in just eight weeks time.

The “I Have A Dream” speech given my Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 28, 1963 is well known, heavily dissected, and a historical staple in the conversation regarding Black history. King delivered that address to a crowd of over 200,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 100-year anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The timing, location, and delivery were all undeniably powerful.

That moment, and King, have been credited justly. However, this event and plenty more surrounding King’s achievements fail to recognize his right-hand man Bayard Rustin. It was Rustin who had strategically organized the march in only eight weeks.

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It is often written that Bayard Rustin was born to Janifer and Julia Rustin on March 17, 1912 in Westchester, Pennsylvania. They were in fact his grandparents. Just before adolescence he learned his “sister” Florence was actually his mother and his father was Archie Hopkins. Julia Rustin however was his dominant caregiver. She had received a Quaker education and was a civic activist. An early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a strong supporter of nonviolence, often stating “One just doesn’t lose one’s temper.” From her, Rustin learned nonviolence and civic activism.

He excelled in high school, winning a school essay contest, and becoming the first Black youth to win the oratory award in its 40-year history. He played the lead in dramatic productions, placed in advanced curriculum, and was a stellar athlete. Following high school he pursued five years of higher education across three different institutions but did not obtain a degree.

In 1941 he met African labor leader Asa Phillip Randolph. He worked under Randolph fighting against racial discrimination in hiring practices during the second World War. He was an expert at organizing human rights protests by the time his mentor Randolph introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Bayard met Martin Luther King Jr. , King had not yet adopted methods of nonviolence and owned a house full of weapons. It was Bayard Rustin whom introduced him to the ideals of pacifism, which King would eventually adopt. Using the method of civil disobedience they organized the Montgomery bus boycotts, and later on that famous peaceful protest at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

While fighting for human rights for all, Bayard Rustin faced many personal obstacles along the way by living as an openly gay man. Although a brilliant strategist in propelling the Civil Rights Movement forward, King was the face while Rustin worked behind the scenes. A political decision the team felt was best for all.

Bayard Rustin died August 24, 1987 in New York, New York, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama November 20, 2013.

A native of Phoenix, Arizona Aundrea Sayrie is a firm believer in the power of words, faith and a strong spirit. Her greatest desire is to encourage those around her to discover and honor their truth, and to passionately live on purpose.