Inside the March on Washington: Bayard Rustin’s “Army”

(The following is a guest post by Kate Stewart, processing archivist in the American Folklife Center, who is principally responsible for organizing and making available collections with Civil Rights content in the division to researchers and the public.)

(left to right) Bayard Rustin, deputy director, and Cleveland Robinson, chairman of Administrative Committee, March on Washington. Orlando Fernandez, World Telegram & Sun photo. Prints and Photographs Division.

The planning and execution of the March on Washington in 1963 stands as an extraordinary testament to the vision, political strategy and determination of several organizations and key individuals, chief among them A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who had conceived of just such an event as far back as the 1940s. By the summer of 1963, the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, an umbrella group of member organizations including the SCLC, the NAACP, the National Urban League and SNCC, among others, had come together to raise funds to support the day-to-day work of Rustin and his production crew, consisting of dozens of college students.

Typically, it is the voices of leaders of the groups within the council – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young – that figure prominently in many accounts of the march. By contrast, this second post in a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington focuses on the experiences of individuals who worked behind the scenes to plan and carry out a feat of logistics, imagination and organization that made the march an indelible memory for both those who participated in it and others who witnessed it on television around the nation and the world.  In these two interviews from collections in the American Folklife Center, Rachelle Horowitz and Joyce Ladner describe their work at the march headquarters in Harlem in the summer of 1963.  Both remember the long hours and hard work it took to plan the march in the course of eight weeks, and both talk about the mentorship of Bayard Rustin, for whom they worked that summer.

Rustin’s central role in shaping the philosophy of the movement and organizing many of the key direct actions that gave the movement public prominence was indisputable.  By the summer of 1963, he had already planned and carried out the Prayer Pilgrimage in 1957 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), as well as two marches in 1958 and 1959 called the Youth March for Integrated Schools. All three of these events were precursors to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the summer of 1963.

Rachelle Horowitz was a student at Brooklyn College in the late 1950s when she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  She started volunteering with a little-known organization called In Friendship in Manhattan with Rustin and Ella Baker, another civil rights icon, and subsequently, at age 22, became the march’s transportation coordinator.  In this 2003 interview with Megan Rosenfeld for the Voices of Civil Rights Project Collection, Horowitz discusses how Rustin led the planning of the march in 1963 at the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, along with A. Philip Randolph.  Despite initial opposition from the Kennedy administration and other politicians, Rustin and Randolph convinced them to approve the march. Horowitz then talks about the challenge of chartering buses and planning the logistics of moving thousands of people in and out of the city in August 1963.

Sisters Joyce and Dorie Ladner grew up in Mississippi and became civil rights activists as teenagers in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While attending Tougaloo College, Joyce joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, often pronounced “snick”), a group founded in 1960 by students involved in sit-ins, protests and other forms of nonviolent direct action.  In the summer of 1963, Joyce went to New York as a representative of SNCC to help plan the march along with her sister, Dorie.  Joyce worked as a fundraiser with Rustin, Rachelle Horowitz and Eleanor Holmes (now Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton).  The two sisters lived with Horowitz and Holmes for the summer. In this anecdote from an interview conducted by UNC’s Southern Oral History program for the Civil Rights History Project Collection, Joyce remembers long hours, hard work and “Bobby” Dylan hanging out in their apartment and playing guitar late into the night when the residents only wanted to go to sleep.
The Library of Congress exhibition “A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington”  opens on Aug. 28. You can read the first post of the “Inside the March on Washington” blog series here.

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