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The forgotten man of the march

Saturday - 8/24/2013, 8:45pm  ET

Bayard Rustin, shown here in 1970, was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. (AP)

The mastermind behind the march into history

Thomas Warren, WTOP


WASHINGTON - Martin Luther King. A. Phillip Randolph. John Lewis.

Their names have become synonymous with The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But a name that arguably has gone largely unknown in the 50 years since is that of the man tasked with pulling it off - chief organizer Bayard Rustin.

Rustin was a protégé of Civil Rights Movement pioneer Randolph, became a vital leader during the movement himself, and was an ardent practitioner of non-violence.

As a member of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1947, Rustin organized the first freedom rides through the South, which were called "The Journey of Reconciliation."

In 1956, Rustin became a trusted advisor of Dr. King while working as his chief strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott.

The March on Washington was Randolph's idea, and he hand-picked Rustin to plan it. Aug. 28 was the date picked, giving him just over two months to get it done.

"He was a mastermind, and a genius," says Rachelle Horowitz, who worked as one of Rustin's transportation directors for The March. "He worked on every cylinder, so that he simultaneously thought about the nuts and bolts of the organizing and how to get it done."

Rustin made two organizing manuals that illustrated not only the plans of the march, but a manifesto of demands.

Bayard Rustin reads the manifesto of demands at the March on Washington


In the weeks leading up to the march, there was widespread fear that those who decided to attend would be met with violence.

"Not from the marchers, but from segregationists and others that they might attack the march." says Ruth Jordan, who worked for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and passed out signs near the Ellipse to their members in attendance.

According to Horowitz, when the Kennedy administration offered to make troops available to protect against violent outbursts, Rustin balked.

"Bayard said, 'No, if you have Army or National Guard, put them on the periphery of the crowd. We will marshall our march; you have your troops watch out for counter demonstrations and for the Ku Klux Klan and anybody who tries to disrupt it'," Horowitz says.

At the organizing headquarters in New York, Rustin trained New York Police Department officers who volunteered for the march in non-violent tactics, says Horowitz.

Rustin's two worries

Rachelle Horowitz tells WTOP's Thomas Warren about the two things that worried Bayard Rustin most


Despite Rustin's reputation as a leader in The Movement, however, not everyone was on board with him as the chief organizer.

"The black clergy and some of the conservative civil rights organizations were opposed to Bayard Rustin having the keynote chief of staff role because one, he had a background of being associated with Communists when he was a young person; and two, he was gay," says Clarence B. Jones, who was Dr. King's lawyer and draft speechwriter.

Jones is referring to Rustin's affiliation with the Young Communist League while a student at City College of New York. And in 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, Calif., after he was caught engaging in sex with two men in parked car.

It took some arm-twisting, but Rustin was given approval to lead the march plans because Randolph and Dr. King signed on.

The day of The March, Horowitz says there was a feeling of elation at what Rustin had pulled off.

"I was sitting on the podium with a lot of the staff people and we looked down at this crowd, and we all thought this is the beloved community, this is what we're all fighting for and it could really happen," she says.

Rustin died in 1987.

President Obama will honor him later this year with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's the nation's highest civilian honor.

"Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all," the White House said in a statement.

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