With Rustin, the movie that landed on Netflix in November 2023, the modern world has made justice about a milestone in the history of the United States. As the film succeeds in explaining, Bayard Rustin has been a significant figure in the evolution of American Civil Rights, but his name didn’t receive the visibility it deserved for many reasons. The perception has been that many parts of society tried to hide his role in that part of history, and movies like this help restore the right perspective. His role as the organizer of the March on Washington was crucial, and his speech at the end became iconic.
Bayard Rustin has spent his whole life supporting civil rights for African Americans. For that cause, he also flew to India to learn the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. He later passed those principles to Martin Luther King, and together, they shaped the spirit of the protests African American people organized in the 50s and the 60s.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was definitely the most significant demonstration ever organized by Bayard Rustin. The movie does a great job showing the importance the march had in the evolution of politics: the original goal was to have 100.000 people pacifically protesting around the white house, but on the day of the demonstration, August 28, 1963, around 250.000 showed up. The march was a complete success, with many celebrities involved and speeches from many religious leaders and civil rights activists incidents. The political class couldn’t ignore what happened, and right at the end of the March, President Kennedy asked to meet with the leaders who spoke at the March. Below you find the photo of that meeting, from Wikipedia.
Bayard Rustin wasn’t one of “The Big Ten” who held the important speeches that day, but there is a short video of part of his speech that day, explaining the spirit of the protest. You can find it below.
What’s more meaningful to understand the impact of the March in the history of the United States is the speech Rustin gave at the end of the event, after President Kennedy agreed to meet the movement’s leaders. There is no video footage, but you can hear his words in the streaming below.
In that speech, Bayard Rustin summarized the demands of the African-American people for the society they wanted, asking the crowd for confirmation that those were the requests the leaders were supposed to submit to the President. Eight demands are listed in that speech, including fair rights in education, jobs, and housing, commitment to ending segregation, equal dignity to all other parts of society, and more support against unemployment. Hearing the crowd’s reaction, you can have a clear idea of how Bayard Rustin fueled people’s enthusiasm.
Many of the personalities involved in defending civil rights in that period tended to dismiss the importance of Bayard Rustin because of some crucial factors belonging to his past: for a short time, he was a member of the Communist Party, and in 1953, he was arrested for sexual activity in a car with two men. Despite his active involvement in the civil rights cause and his talent in organizing the action, many considered him an easy target that could damage the movement’s reputation. Thanks to the movie Rustin, to articles like this excellent piece on history.com, and to the recent media coverage (especially after the film was announced, as this reportage by CBD Sunday Morning proves), the role Bayard Rustin had in American society is known to many more people today.