Although political marches in DC are now commonplace, in 1963 attempting to stage such a large march in the nation’s capital was completely unprecedented. But, with the six major civil rights organizations calling for a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom August 28, 1963 had a secret weapon, organizational and strategic genius Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a black social justice activist who was openly gay and had been arrested on “morals charges” and served time in jail for his private sex life. And, although Rustin had less than two months to organize the march, he did it down to the last detail. President Kennedy and many members of Congress tried to convince organizers to call off the march, fearing that if any act of civil unrest or property damage occurred, it would kill any chance of passing the Civil Rights Act. , which was already facing an uphill battle. in Congress and an obstruction in the Senate.
Organizers were hoping for a crowd of perhaps 100,000 at most. But, on August 28, the crowd kept growing, and finally she reached more than 250,000at that time by far the largest crowd to ever attend an event in DC
Here are some of the organizational details that Rustin has in place in advance to ensure a Organized, peaceful, message-driven gathering of 250,000 people on a hot, sunny August day on the National Mall:
- He had all the signs made in-house with specific messages, so that no walker or group could bring their own signs with a different message and possibly detract from the message the organizers wanted to see in the newspaper photographs and TV news. that night. !
- He recruited and trained 2,000 volunteer marshals, who would help control spectators trying to harass walkers and, just as important, control any walkers who might decide to do something that would detract from the day’s events. In reality, there were no disruptions and the marshals mainly helped to control traffic and direct walkers on the right path.
- He arranged for 24 aid stations with volunteer doctors and nurses to be spread across the march route, as it would be very hot and humid on August 28.
- He organized bus parking for the more than 2,000 buses from across the United States and ensured that detailed walk instructions and the day’s agenda were distributed to all attendees.
- Upon hearing that some New York police officers were coming to participate in the march, he contacted the New York Police Commissioner and asked him to drop the requirement that all New York police officers carry their weapons 24 hours a day. , 7 days a week, whether they are in service or not, because Rustin made it. don’t want walkers to have guns.
- He recruited thousands of walkers to volunteer for a cleanup crew at the end of the day, so that by 9 p.m. there was not a single litter or other evidence that 250,000 people had passed the day on the National Mall.
- He asked Riverside Church to make 80,000 sandwiches and DC’s Howard Johnson Motel to provide 19,800 meals plus 8,400 soft drinks and milk cartons.
- Using the many connections the Big Six leaders had, he invited many celebrities to attend, and they showed up in large numbers; to name a few: Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Josephine Baker even returned from France.
- To address President Kennedy’s concerns that it would not upset members of Congress, he agreed to end the march at the Lincoln Memorial where the speakers would take the stage and not in front of the Capitol.
And, at the end of the long, hot day, there have been no reported incidents of unrest and no arrests!
But, genius strategist Rustin was also at work behind the scenes in another way. A few days before the march, Rustin attended the meeting of the six civil rights organizations, where they planned the day’s agenda. Although Rustin was the main organizer of the event, when it came to setting the agenda, the group had to make those decisions. He returned from the meeting and told Dr King he had “bad news and good news”. Dr King first asked what the “bad news” was. Rustin told him that the other Big Six organizations felt the media was paying too much attention to Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so they placed Dr. King as the last speaker on the long order of the day. So Dr. King probably wouldn’t speak until 3:30 or 4 p.m. on a hot summer day on the mall (it was 87 degrees at noon that day). Rustin said the thinking of other groups was likely that by then some of the crowd would have left to take their buses back to their home towns, and others might have “withered” under the heat and humidity of the long day and would be gone. Perhaps some of the reporters would also have gotten bored and headed to a payphone to call their stories for the day.
Dr. King was surprised and saddened by this news, and he asked Rustin how could there be “good news” in this plan for the day? Rustin smiled and took his watch out of his pocket and held it up. He said he was the ‘official timekeeper’ for the day, and that they agreed to limit each speaker to a maximum of five minutes, and he threatened to reach out to a scam artist and have any speaker removed from the podium which exceeded this limit. Then he added, with a big smile, that Dr. King should take all the time he needed, because he was the “brother who had the message that needed to be heard!” As a result, although Dr. King was ranked 16th on the long agenda, followed only by blessing, engagement and the crowd joining in the “We Shall Overcome” chant, and although he was preceded by nine other speakers and two sets of songs, his speech, the “I have a dream” speech, lasted 17 minutes and is one that history will remember.
As you may know, the “I have a dream” part was added extemporaneously this afternoon after his favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, called after him twice: “Tell them about the dream, Martin. After his second call, he then pushed his prepared manuscript aside and began the part we all remember “So, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” Hearing these words, one of his collaborators turned to the person next to him and said: “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church!” Most historians agree that it was one of the the greatest speeches of the 20th century and that the huge success of the March on Washington helped win passage the following year from the Civil Rights Act 1964.
And, let us also remember that Bayard Rustin was the gay genius who made the March on Washington and Dr. King’s speech into a way that made history and helped bend the long arc of the moral universe toward justice for so many Americans!