August 30, 2013
“Basically this was Bayard Rustin’s show:” that’s about the 1963 March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and it is from John Lewis, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1998), p 215. Lewis, of course, was/is himself a stirring hero of the Civil Rights Movement, someone who put himself in harm’s way many times, and was eventually elected to Congress where he has served with courage and distinction. But he takes his hat off for Rustin, the architect and the engineer of the March, a gay, African-American Quaker named Bayard Rustin.
The March on Washington was copied many times thereafter (several times during the Vietnam War, for example), but in 1963 there was no pattern to copy. It all had to be thought through, made up, and made to happen. It was Rustin who did that. Here’s more from Lewis’s book:
The weekend before the march, I went up to New York, where an old four story church building on West 130thStreet in Harlem had been turned into command central for the “MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM,” as a hand-painted banner flapping outside the third-floor window proclaimed it. More than a hundred civil, labor and religious organizations from across the country had committed themselves to supporting and participating in this event, and several white labor and religious leaders had signed on as sponsors –people ranging from Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress to Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO. (March director A. Philip) Randolph called it a “coalition of conscience.” But basically this was Bayard Rustin’s show. And this building in Harlem was where he was making it happen.
This was Bayard at his best, seemingly everywhere, with that gray bushy hair, those high cheekbones and an ever-present cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He, along with “transportation director” Rachelle Horowitz, directed dozens of volunteers who were working around the clock, swarming over lists and charts and telephones, passing updates back and forth to an army or organizers in virtually every major city in the nation. Estimates were that 100,000 people going to descend on D.C. by bus, train, airplane and any other way they could get there. But there was really no way of knowing how many people would actually come. Most of us had no doubt that there would be many more than that, and the logistics and preparations were dizzying. Doctors, drinking water, food, getting the march routes to the crowds that would be pouring into the capital that morning, a sound system to accommodate an audience the size of a small city, press passes to the three thousand members of the media expected to arrive to cover the event… and toilets. Toilets were a major concern. I will never forget Bayard proclaiming, in that rich British accent of his: “Now we cawn’t have any disorganized pissing in Washington.”
There was not one detail that Bayard missed. The staffer rushing in and out of those offices each wore a small button displaying a black and a white hand clasped together in solidarity –Bayard had commissioned the buttons to help raise money. They sold for a quarter apiece, and by the weekend I arrived 175,000 had been bought, with 150,000 more on order.