Today is the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a pivotal moment in the 1960s civil rights movement for Black Americans. The occasion is being commemorated with a new March on Washington—and with smaller marches in other cities, including Portland.
When we remember the original March on Washington, the first name that likely comes to mind is that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his historic “I Have a Dream" speech on that day in 1963. The late Congressman John Lewis, another pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, also delivered a speech that day in his capacity as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization responsible for sit-ins and marches against segregation in the American South.
But there’s another name that, while arguably as important as King or Lewis for making the March on Washington happen, isn’t as well known to the average American: Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was a lead organizer of both the March on Washington and the Freedom Rides, and dedicated his entire life to civil rights causes. His work ensured that the March on Washington went off without any logistical hitches—but that work had to be behind the scenes, because Rustin was an openly gay man.
In March, Lewis’ graphic memoir about the civil rights movement, Lewis writes about a meeting he had with other leaders when planning for the March on Washington. Rustin’s name came up as a person who could lead the march through the streets of Washington, D.C. While the others agreed that his organizational skills and fierce passion for justice were second to none, Rustin was quickly rejected because, as Lewis wrote, “Rustin was gay… It made him a strategic liability.” So they chose to make Rustin a behind-the-scenes figure instead.
But although he wasn’t front and center, Rustin’s involvement in the March on Washington still attracted derision from conservatives. Strom Thurmond, a famously racist senator from North Carolina, read Rustin’s arrest record—which included a charge of sex in public with another man (they were in a car)—into the Congressional record in an attempt to shame Rustin, and stain the civil rights movement, in the lead-up to the march.
Still, Lewis writes, Rustin “showed no sign the attacks were getting to him.” He focused instead on the organizational needs of the march—like securing restrooms, so demonstrators wouldn’t be “pissing in the streets”—and succeeded in making the March on Washington a logistical feat. It was one of the largest marches in Washington, D.C.’s history.
Rustin continued his fight for racial justice—and later for gay rights—until he died in 1987. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the presidential medal of freedom in 2013, and Rustin continues to be remembered as an LGBTQ+ Black civil rights leader on par with Marsha P. Johnson.
But the wider culture doesn’t remember Rustin the way we remember King or Lewis, and it’s clear that his sexual orientation is the reason why. In an alternate timeline, Rustin might have delivered his own equivalent of the “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. He might have gone on to serve as a distinguished member of Congress, and become a household name that’s synonymous with justice. But because his queer identity was a liability for a Black civil rights movement that already had plenty of things stacked against it, Rustin was relegated to a role outside the spotlight, doing the necessary but unglamorous work of facilitating, rather than inspiring.
When I recently read March, I choked up when I came to the pages about Rustin. I was touched to learn about his dedication to a cause that couldn’t fully accept him, and angry that I’d never heard his name before—but not surprised. Even as schools adopt new curriculum to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ historical figures, they face pushback from conservatives who insist this is rewriting history to fit an ideological narrative. But as Rustin’s story shows, the opposite is true: The ideological bent of a given time and place shapes who we remember from that era. To recognize the contributions of people like Rustin is to make history less ideological, not more.
So on this anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s worth remembering Bayard Rustin, without whom the march very well may not been the uplifting, impressive feat it’s now remembered as. Let his story serve as a reminder that queer heroes are everywhere in history—all you have to do is look for them.