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Bayard Rustin speaking with four students
Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross. Ed Ford, 1964

Looking for Leaders Behind the Scenes: Bayard Rustin and his Role in African American History

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When we study African American history we sometimes tend to focus on the leaders — the people in front leading the marches, giving the speeches, and accepting the glory. It’s harder to see the organizers who work behind the scenes to make sure the infrastructure is in place, make sure people show up, and disseminate information about the events to a wider audience.

One of those unsung heroes is Bayard Rustin. I recently watched a movie that celebrates Rustin, who was able to get the 1963 March on Washington organized in less than three months. He did this in spite of those who said that it couldn’t be done, those who predicted it would be violent and would keep the 1964 Civil Rights Act from being approved, and those who wanted Rustin to leave his position because of his previous Communist leanings and his sexual identity.

Image of people marching with signs from the March on Washington
Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the March on Washington, 1963. Marion S. Trikosko, 1963

Ask students to examine the photograph of demonstrators during the March on Washington and work in small groups to list as many tasks as they can think of that might go into planning such an event. Then, present them with the brochure of Final plans for the march on Washington for jobs and freedom, August 28, 1963, allow time for them to study it, and ask them to add more tasks to their lists. Ask students to consider the importance of planning to such a big event, and then ask why Bayard Rustin might not be as well known as others within the Civil Rights Movement.

Cover of the planning document for the March on Washington
Final plans for the march on Washington for jobs and freedom, August 28, 1963

The Library of Congress holds Rustin’s papers. The timeline of his life in the collection’s finding aid indicates that organization was at the center of his life. He worked with A. Philip Randolph to organize the planned 1941 March on Washington to protest the lack of opportunities for African Americans within the federal government and to encourage the integration of the United States military. He was invited by Martin Luther King, Jr., to help organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1957, he organized the prayer pilgrimage to Washington for Civil Rights and Freedom. He worked in Africa to develop the Committee to Support Africa, in England on nuclear disarmament, and with the Memphis sanitation workers’ union to support their right to strike.

To learn more about Bayard Rustin, read these posts from Picture This and the Library of Congress Timeless blogs.

During African American History Month encourage students to learn about other lesser known figures in the Civil Rights Movement such as Ella Baker, Anna Hedgeman, Benjamin Mays, Clarence Mitchell and Fannie Lou Hamer. Also share recordings from the Civil Rights History Project from some people who attended the March on Washington.

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Comments (2)

  1. As an African American I love to read about our history. Especially about lesser known individuals like Bass Reeves.

  2. Bayard Rustin,A.Philip Randolph and B.F. McLaurin were frequent guest at my parent’s home in Baltimore. My dad,the late State Senator Troy Brailey , had been a Pullma Porter. He worked very closely with Mr.Randolph and company on many projects,including previous ly proposed marches. My dad was chair of the Baltimore March On Washington contingent. I am in posession of original documents pertaining to the event. It was an interesting time to observe.

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