It was around this point in August 1963, in the sweltering days before the March on Washington, that Eleanor Holmes Norton was waiting for someone to say something really nasty about her boss.
She was a march volunteer. The boss was Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer and the man widely viewed as the only civil rights activist capable of pulling off a protest of such unprecedented scale.
And he was gay. Openly gay. That year again? 1963.
“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” says Norton, now the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will be forever known as the day that ensured the success of the civil rights movement and launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the highest pantheon of American champions. Next week, on the 48th anniversary of the march, King will be anointed into that ultra-selective fraternity of national leaders memorialized on the Mall.
But for hundreds of civil rights veterans, Aug. 28 will also always be Bayard’s Day, the crowning achievement of one of the movement’s most effective, and unconventional, activists.
“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” says Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”
In the weeks before the march, planners were checking off details by the thousand: buses booked, speeches vetted, slogans written, portable toilets rented. At the Harlem headquarters, Rustin toggled between the political (brokering podium time for dozens of competing groups) and the practical (determining whether peanut butter or sandwiches with mayonnaise would stand up better in a Washington August).
Between phone calls, he drilled the hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters who had volunteered to serve as marshals. He made them take off their guns and coached them in the techniques of nonviolent crowd control he had brought back from a pilgrimage to India.
“We used to go out to the courtyard to watch,” says Rachelle Horowitz, a longtime Rustin lieutenant who served as the march’s transportation coordinator. “It was like, see Bayard tame the police.”
Horowitz and his other disciples, meanwhile, waited for someone in the enemy camp to notice that the only thing bigger than the responsibilities on Rustin’s shoulders were the targets on his back.
The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour. He’d had a fleeting association with a communist youth group in the 1930s and had been a Harlem nightclub singer in the 1940s (and was still given to filling corridors and meeting rooms with his high troubadour tenor). He had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during World War II — he used his time there to take up the lute — and had been jailed more than 25 other times as a protester.
And, one time, he was jailed on a “morals charge,” after being caught entangled with two other men in a parked car, which was a crime in Pasadena, Calif., in 1953.
“He absolutely didn’t hide it,” Horowitz says. “He’d never heard there was a closet.”
Rustin began a lifelong, one-man march for dignity in his teen years in West Chester, Pa., where he was born in 1912. He was raised by a Quaker grandmother.
As a standout football player at a mostly white high school, Rustin was known to recite classical verse as he helped bewildered opposing linemen to their feet. He insisted that black players be housed with white players at out-of-town games and was arrested as a teenager for refusing to vacate the white areas in the town movie theater, restaurants and YMCA.
And Rustin was still a young man when he told his grandmother that he simply preferred the company of other young men.
“At his very earliest, it was apparent that Bayard liked to cause trouble for the institutions he chafed against,” says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “He began a lifetime of challenging conventions of politics, race and sexuality.”
Rustin proved a natural at strategic thinking and organizing. He would sing to crowds, debate opponents, go limp for policemen. As his 10,000-page FBI file details, he plunged into a hit parade of protest causes over his lifetime: segregation, Japanese internees, draft resisters, workers’ rights, chain-gang prisoners, the anti-nuclear movement, South African apartheid.
“He’s like the Zelig of the 20th century — he pops up in so many places,” says Bennett Singer, co-producer with Nancy Kates of “Brother Outsider,” an acclaimed 2003 documentary about Rustin.