The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom “ended for me when we had finally made sure we had not left one piece of paper, not a cup, nothing,” reflected civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in a 1979 interview.
The speeches were over. The microphone was silent. The estimated 250,000 marchers were on their way home.
Martin Luther King Jr. had finished telling the world about his dream for his children, who he hoped would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A. Philip Randolph had led the crowd in a pledge to “not relax until victory is won.” Arrayed in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a chorus of voices led by Joan Baez had finished singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The August 28, 1963, march for civil rights was complete, and it had been a smashing success. More than anyone else, Rustin was the person who’d made it all possible. Long after all the other people who took a turn at the podium retired for the night, Rustin was still there, directing 500 volunteers in a strenuous cleaning effort to leave the National Mall better than they’d found it. He wasn’t listed as a speaker on the program; instead, he was allotted less than 30 seconds to summarize the demands made by the leaders who spoke before him. In footage captured that day, Rustin is often visible in the background, standing just behind the various speakers.
This was the role that Rustin played throughout his career. He was the brilliant strategist just off screen, the erudite mentor who taught King the virtues of nonviolent civil disobedience, the activist who never made the step to civil rights leadership like many of his peers. He was, in a sense, the perennial organizer and intellectual mooring of the Black freedom struggle, always crucial but rarely in the headlines.
“As a theoretician and tactician in the civil rights movement from the 1940s through the 1960s,” Rustin played an “indispensable” role on the ground that was “consistent without interruption,” says Dennis C. Dickerson, a historian at Vanderbilt University. Yet his contributions to the fight for equality have long been overlooked, in no small part because Rustin was an openly gay Black man at a time when homosexuality was criminalized in much of the United States.
Rustin, a new film starring Colman Domingo as the eponymous activist, rightfully shifts the historical perspective to recenter Bayard Rustin. Directed by George C. Wolfe (best known for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), the movie strives to capture the complexities of Rustin’s relationship with King (played by Aml Ameen) as they carried out the most visible demonstration for Black freedom in American history. As producers Bruce Cohen and Tonia Davis explain in an interview, Rustin was witty, charming and deeply intelligent—qualities they hoped to convey in the film. Wolfe, for his part, tells CBS News that Rustin is “an American hero, who not only contributed heavily to one of the most significant peaceful demonstrations that has ever happened in this country but … also wrote the book on how to stage such an event.”
Bringing Rustin’s story to the screen
Rustin explores its subject’s career as a civil rights organizer, focusing specifically on his affiliation with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), his termination from that position on account of his sexuality and his leadership of the 1963 March on Washington. The bulk of the film depicts the process of organizing the march as all the prominent civil rights leaders negotiated with one another to hammer out the specifics.
Chris Rock (playing Roy Wilkins) and Jeffrey Wright (as Adam Clayton Powell Jr.) offer commanding performances as the film’s antagonists, entrenched Black power brokers hesitant to upset the status quo. They are rivaled, however, by Glynn Turman, who brilliantly captures Randolph’s commanding presence within the movement and the depth of his devotion to Rustin.
Though the film underscores the difficulties Rustin faced because of his sexuality, its primary message is one of hope and collaboration. As Cohen and Davis explain, the filmmakers strived to create a movie that reflected Rustin’s inspiring charisma.
Here’s what you need to know about the man behind the film ahead of its arrival in select theaters on November 3. Rustin will be available to stream on Netflix on November 17.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912. He was raised by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, as the younger brother of his biological mother. A nurse, Quaker and founding member of a local NAACP chapter, Julia instilled in Rustin many of the beliefs that would define his adult life, including a steadfast dedication to civic, nonviolent activism and a lifelong commitment to securing citizenship rights for Black Americans. His grandmother, Rustin later recalled, impressed on him that “it was too tiresome to hate” and that it was his duty “to treat each person as a complete human being.”
Rustin was a distinguished member of his integrated high school class, serving as valedictorian, playing football and training as a musician. “Even before he finished high school,” writes John D’Emilio in Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, “Bayard had formed a decision, made a moral resolve, not to accept from white America the restrictions it sought to impose,” whether by demanding to stay at the same hotel as his white football teammates on an overnight trip or refusing to vacate his seat in the “whites-only” section at the downtown movie theater.
After graduation, Rustin briefly studied at small colleges in Ohio and Pennsylvania, attending on music scholarships. In 1937, he moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where he joined the Quaker 15th Street Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends and started his career as an organizer. Initially enamored with the Communist Party’s devotion to racial equality, Rustin more fully embraced political socialism and ideological pacifism after the outbreak of World War II, when the party abandoned civil rights advocacy for war work.
During his first few years in Harlem, Rustin formed connections with A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a Black labor union. Muste, a Dutch American theologian, hired Rustin as a FOR youth secretary in 1941. Partnered with James Farmer, the burgeoning activist traveled around the country to extoll the virtues of nonviolence and invigorate local branches of the pacifist organization. Rustin, said fellow organizers he met on his speaking tours, had “an electrifying presence” and “was always a huge hit.”
Working for FOR also offered Rustin opportunities to apply nonviolent civil disobedience to the civil rights cause. As D’Emilio tells Smithsonian, Muste “was completely supportive and encouraging of working on racial justice issues. Bayard had the freedom and encouragement to do that.” During his first two years at FOR, Rustin played an instrumental role in founding the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helping Randolph organize the 1941 March on Washington, which was called off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt made fair employment concessions.
At the same time, the events of the early 1940s forced Rustin to make difficult decisions about his convictions, with “the tension between the demands of a pacifist organization and the appeal of racial justice work” rising to the surface, writes D’Emilio in his biography. By 1942, Rustin was a staffer or organizer for three groups: FOR, CORE and the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), which remained operational after Randolph called off the proposed 1941 march. The group disbanded in 1947 but laid the blueprint for the 1963 demonstration of the same name.
Rustin’s obligations began to interfere with one another; in particular, the MOWM advocated reforms to defense industries—a peculiar cause for an institutional pacificist. It gave the activist consistent access to Randolph, the most prominent Black voice in America, and other like-minded Black activists. Though Rustin increasingly prioritized his civil rights work, his commitment to pacifist resistance did not diminish. In 1944, he was sent to prison for draft evasion after informing his draft board that he was following “the will of God” by not supporting the war cause.
A life of nonviolent protest
Even federal prison proved productive for Rustin. As he always had before, the activist refused to acquiesce to discriminatory practices. While incarcerated at Ashland Federal Prison in Kentucky, he demanded integration in prison common areas and requested the opportunity to teach a U.S. history course for white inmates, prompting warden Robert Hagerman to characterize him as “an extremely capable agitator whose ultimate objective is to discredit the Bureau of Prisons.” Nonetheless, both requests were temporarily granted.
Rustin’s stint at Ashland also marked the first time he was forced to choose his civic activism over his sexual orientation. He’d lived among friends as an outwardly gay man since moving to New York, and he never stopped forming relationships with other men throughout his life. As D’Emilio says, Rustin “was not in the closet … in that he never pretended he had a girlfriend. When he had a boyfriend and there was a social event … he brought his boyfriend.”
After facing retaliation in prison, Rustin more fully understood the harsh reality that his sexuality could and would be used against him during his civil rights organizing. The American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental illness and would only reverse this stance in 1973. Illinois, the first state to decriminalize sodomy, was still nearly two decades away from legalizing consensual same-sex activity. As Jerry Watkins III, a historian at the College of William & Mary, tells Smithsonian, Rustin “could hide his sexuality, but he [couldn’t] hide that he was a Black man,” leading him “to the understanding of his race as the more important part of his identity.”
Hagerman, for example, placed Rustin in isolation and canceled his class after other inmates accused him of “sexual misconduct.” Muste wrote to Rustin, castigating him for “making the ‘mistake’ of thinking that you could be the leader in a revolution … at the same time that you were a weakling in an extreme degree.” Davis Platt, Rustin’s romantic partner at FOR, similarly requested that he refrain from sexual activity while incarcerated. Rustin promised both men that he would not engage in any behaviors that would threaten the racial justice cause.
Rustin left prison in 1946, even more devoted to his convictions than before, and immediately threw himself into the work of a full-time organizer. With CORE co-founder George Houser, he devised the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation as a test of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Morgan v. Virginia, which banned segregated seating in interstate travel. A precursor to the Freedom Rides of 1961, the campaign paired white and Black activists on a bus trip through the Upper South. Traveling through North Carolina proved especially difficult, with participants facing numerous arrests and a violent altercation instigated by reactionary white taxi drivers.
During his last five years at FOR, Rustin transitioned from national organizer to international traveler, embarking on trips to Europe, India and Africa. His tour of India cemented his reputation as a nonviolent leader on the international stage and sharpened his perception of how tactics used by Mahatma Gandhi could be applied elsewhere. By 1952, when Rustin undertook a speaking tour of West Africa, he more clearly understood the U.S.’s Black freedom struggle in relation to anticolonial and anti-discrimination movements around the globe. As he wrote to Muste, “I know that we have a part to play both in this country and Africa. … It is not merely my desire to work on the African problem but, I believe, a clear calling to do so—a calling that I cannot easily ignore.”
But everything changed in January 1953, when authorities arrested Rustin in Pasadena, California, for engaging in sexual activity with a man in a parked car. He served 50 days in jail and was required to register as a sex offender. FOR’s executive committee accepted Rustin’s resignation on January 26 in a public statement that acknowledged his sexual history and thanked him “for the many services he has rendered.”
Mr. March on Washington
Upon his release from jail, Rustin was jobless, stripped of his speaking platform and barred from participating in the organizations that had been his home since 1941. Six months later, the War Resisters League, a pacifist group that embraced nonviolence after World War II, took a chance on Rustin, disregarding the objections of executive committee member Muste, who felt betrayed by his mentee’s actions.
Rustin’s break with FOR, while initially devastating, allowed him to focus more of his attention on issues of racial justice in the U.S. Instead of traveling around the world giving talks on nonviolence, he could now devote himself to civil rights full time. And the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 provided the perfect moment to jump in.
Under the leadership of King, who was relatively new to civil rights activism at the time, the bus boycott was the first large-scale effort to integrate public transportation in the Deep South. King had the support of Montgomery’s Black population, but he needed a tactical and ideological advisor—he needed Rustin, or so Randolph and other prominent leaders in the movement thought. Unlike Muste, Randolph had never soured on Rustin. “Except for one conflict they had in the 1940s over military desegregation,” says D’Emilio, “Randolph always fully supported and respected Rustin.” Rustin’s relationship “with Randolph was lasting,” Dickerson adds, “because they were of like mind in terms of the closeness of civil rights movements and labor movements.”
Rustin traveled to Montgomery in late February 1956, nearly a month after white reactionaries bombed the homes of King and union organizer E.D. Nixon. At the time, “King’s view of nonviolent tactics was almost nonexistent,” Rustin later said. “[He] was permitting himself and his children at home to be protected by guns.” Despite possessing only an intellectual knowledge of Gandhi at the beginning of the boycott, King was a quick study, and through extensive conversation with Rustin, he absorbed the tenets of nonviolence. He even gave up his personal handgun. As Rustin told an interviewer, King “came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussions which he had in the process of carrying on the protest.”
After the successful boycott, Rustin became a fixture in King’s inner circle. He urged King to create a group that united Black leaders in the South and organized a January 1957 meeting at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Stressing the importance of creating “the machinery for stimulating new protests” across the South, this small gathering of religious leaders proved to be the inauguration of the SCLC, the most prominent organization of what Rustin later called the “classical phase” of the civil rights movement.
Shortly thereafter, however, Rustin was once again compelled to step back from an organization he helped shape because of his sexual orientation. In 1960, Rustin and King planned protest marches outside both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. For NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., then the most politically entrenched Black leaders in the U.S., the proposed protests were an affront to their control of Black political power. Looking to discredit the demonstrations, Wilkins turned to Powell, who eagerly went on the attack, denigrating King for being “under undue influences ever since Bayard Rustin … went to Alabama.” Powell also threatened to accuse the two men of being in a homosexual relationship; Rustin resigned from his position at the SCLC, and Wilkins sabotaged the marches by withholding NAACP support.
Still, Rustin’s resolve didn’t falter. He played an instrumental role in organizing the 25,000-strong Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957 and two youth marches for integrated schools in 1958 and 1959. He was Randolph’s natural choice to organize the 1963 March on Washington, a unified effort by major civil rights organizations to bring 250,000 demonstrators to the National Mall.
Rustin’s “technical skills,” says Dickerson, were particularly beneficial. He knew “how you organize and mobilize people.” As Randolph’s deputy director, Rustin spearheaded planning for the march. He drilled the police officers tasked with protecting the marchers in the strategies of nonviolence; raised funds; arranged transportation, facilities and food services; and scheduled the program, all in just seven weeks. Not even South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s allegation that Rustin was a communist and a “pervert” could derail the march’s momentum.
From an organizational standpoint, the march passed without incident, a monumental feat given the sheer number of participants and the visceral emotion surrounding the cause. It took close to another year, plus a martyred president, for Congress to finally pass meaningful civil rights legislation, but the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were consistent with the demands made in 1963.
The March on Washington was the peak of Rustin’s career as a civil rights organizer, but he didn’t slow down after its end. In the years that followed, he led a citywide boycott of New York City public schools, advised the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, served as the founding director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and spoke out in favor of LGBTQ rights.
In the last few decades of his life, Rustin acquired a more institutional—some say conservative—persona, in that he worked more closely with organized labor and the Democratic Party. “Instead of being a sort of protester and demonstrator,” D’Emilio says, Rustin “was also working the system, lobbying and trying to get legislation passed.” The activist envisioned a progressive, multiracial coalition that could move the Democratic Party forward. As such, he questioned Black nationalism and identity politics, including affirmative action, and became increasingly hostile toward communism and what he considered Soviet imperialism.
Toward the end of his life and in the decades after his death at age 75 in 1987, Rustin largely disappeared from the national memory of the civil rights movement. In 1969, nearly three-fourths of respondents to a Gallup poll of Black Americans said they were unsure how to evaluate Rustin’s performance “in the fight for Negro rights in the past few years.” Comparatively, just 3 percent of those polled said the same about King.
Rustin was “lost in the shadows of history,” writes D’Emilio, “because he was a gay man in an era when the stigma attached to this was unrelieved.” Only in recent years has Rustin gained recognition for his commitment to racial equality. In 2013, Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Higher Ground, a production company founded by the former president and his wife, Michelle Obama, is a co-producer of the new Rustin film.) In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom pardoned the activist for his 1953 arrest in Pasadena, praising Rustin as “a humanitarian and civil rights icon.”
Rustin’s institutional affiliation changed time and again throughout his life, often as a matter of necessity, but the convictions that governed his activism remained consistent. Until his death, he advocated policies that meaningfully challenged economic inequality and strived to build a society that was accepting of all Americans, one nonviolent protest or organizational strategy session at a time.