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August 12, 2013 < Previous Entry | Next Entry >

Part 2: Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin’s Role in Organizing the March on Washington

In part two of our interview about the trailblazing civil rights activist Bayard Rustin as he is set to posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, we continue our conversation with former NAACP chair Julian Bond and Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle. Rustin played a central role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which the nation is set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of in the coming weeks. Click here to watch part 1 of this interview.

Naegle reads from badges he brings to show and describes the march’s demands, which are one small part of the vast unknown history of the event remembered primarily for Dr. Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. "The first demand was comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress, without compromise or filibuster, to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, the right to vote," Nagle says. "The second one was withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. The third was desegregation of all school districts in 1963. The fourth was enforcement of the 14th Amendment, reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised. The fifth was a new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds. The sixth was authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated. The seventh was a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and white, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages. The eighth was a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this. Number nine was a broad and fair labor standards act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded. And the last, number 10, a federal fair employment practices act barring discrimination by federal, state and municipal governments and by employers, contractors, employment agencies and trade unions."

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue the conversation on the life and times of the pioneering civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who devoted his life to ending warfare, achieving equal rights for all and creating economic democracy. President Obama has just announced he’s going to receive the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with 15 others.

And now we’re going to focus on this anniversary that is coming up, August 28th, 1963, the March on Washington. Most people don’t know the full name of it: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And also, if you look at the program of that march, you don’t see Bayard Rustin’s name, but he did address the hundreds of thousands of people, the quarter of a million people who came out. Let’s just play a clip.

BAYARD RUSTIN: We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bayard Rustin addressing the March on Washington, though his name was not on the program.

I’m here with Julian Bond, former NAACP chair, and Walter Naegle, the partner of Bayard Rustin, his partner from 1977 until Bayard Rustin died in 1987.

And, Walter, you brought in these—what are these?

WALTER NAEGLE: Well, these are reproductions, enlargements, of small badges that people who were on the platform committee or the march or in the reserve section wore. And a friend of mine from Yale University who’s done a lot of programming about Bayard in the last two years came up with this idea of blowing them up and, on the back, listing the demands of the march, because a lot has been achieved in the last 50 years, but there’s still a long way to go.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what Bayard Rustin was announcing when he was speaking.

WALTER NAEGLE: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: He was talking—can you read these demands?

WALTER NAEGLE: Yes. The first demand was comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress, without compromise or filibuster, to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, the right to vote. The second one was withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. The third was desegregation of all school districts in 1963. The fourth was enforcement of the 14th Amendment, reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised. The fifth was a new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds. The sixth was authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated. The seventh was a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and white, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages. The eighth was a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this. Number nine was a broad and fair—I’m sorry, a broad and fair labor standards act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded. And the last, number 10, a federal fair employment practices act barring discrimination by federal, state and municipal governments and by employers, contractors, employment agencies and trade unions.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Walter Naegle, Bayard Rustin’s partner, reading the demands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Julian Bond, it’s not usually remembered what exactly this march was about, or even the extended title, when you think of the March on Washington, not "for Jobs and Freedom," and particularly significant today with the level of poverty in the United States. But can you talk about the march of 1963, as we move up on the anniversary, how significant it was?

JULIAN BOND: Well, you know, I think those of us who were there in 1963 didn’t immediately realize how significant this was. As you said during the program, we didn’t see many people there early in the morning. The crowd grew and grew and grew. But even when they were all there, you had no idea how many there were. You know, you can’t look out at this mass of people and say, "This is 250,000 people." You just have no idea who they are. And I think, for me, driving back to Atlanta later that day and then reading newspapers the next day in Atlanta and hearing what other people had to say about it, only then would we began to understand the significance of this thing—the largest gathering ever at a civil rights protest. People came together to demand civil rights in America, and that was tremendously significant. But, as you say, if you compare these demands that Bayard read at the march with where we are today, you can see that clearly most of these things have not been achieved, and we still have a long, long way to go.

But it was a wonderful occasion. I was lucky enough to—each of the civil rights organizations volunteered staff people to work at various things in the march. And one of my jobs was passing out Coca-Colas to the movie stars. And I still remember Sammy Davis Jr. pointing his finger at me as if he was holding a pistol, saying, "Thanks, kid." That was one of my big thrills of the March on Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Bayard Rustin went way back, I mean, with A. Philip Randolph to a march they were demanding for jobs and freedom in 1941. That president, the demands were of FDR, and that march actually didn’t take place. Is that right, Julian Bond?

JULIAN BOND: Absolutely. It didn’t take place. It was called off after Roosevelt acted to issue an executive order. But it was the—it helped create the March on Washington movement, which Mr. Randolph headed up in the years between that aborted march and the 1963 march. And that organization became a training ground for activists. It’s important that the people who worked with Mr. Randolph and the people who worked with Bayard Rustin were like training for something coming in the future. I don’t think they or anyone knew what it was, but it was the activist civil rights movement that began with the sit-ins in 1960. And so, the aborted march laid the groundwork for all of the activism that happened from the sit-ins in 1960 forward. It was just as if you knew that these things were going to happen: "Let’s get ready for them. Let’s train for them. Let’s be ready when it happens."

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, didn’t A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin split for a few years after A. Philip Randolph called off the march, because Bayard Rustin did not agree the march should be called off, even with Roosevelt issuing the executive order?

JULIAN BOND: Yes, exactly so. And, you know, one peculiar things about—not peculiar, I shouldn’t say. One of the things about Randolph is he was malleable: He could go this way; he could go that way. If the wind blew one way—I’m not suggesting that he sacrificed his principles at all, but if the wind blew one way and he thought that was the way the movement ought to go, he could go that way. If the wind went the other way and that was the way the movement would—could succeed, he could go that way, too. He, you know, had this not break with Mr. Randolph, but a difference of opinion about how things could go. In fact, he—anyway, he was a malleable person. He was just so skillful, so wonderful. It’s hard to imagine that this march could have happened without him.

AMY GOODMAN: And, interestingly, later—and I also wanted to get Walter Naegle to weigh in—when it came to the war in Vietnam, there was a division in the peace movement and civil rights movement, because there were those who were saying to Dr. King, "Do not give that speech," that he gave at Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967, the why he opposed the Vietnam War speech, saying, "This isn’t your speech. This isn’t your war," that "You got Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act; why take him on around the war?" I would ask—like to ask both of you to weigh in on that. Julian Bond?

JULIAN BOND: Well, of course, you know, I was working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and we were vigorously opposed to the war in Vietnam and did all we could to express that feeling. And, you know, people told Dr. King not to do it, either, that it would hurt him, it would hurt Johnson, it would alienate Johnson, who had proven to be a supportive president, and it would be just a big, big mistake to oppose the war and break this relationship we had with a helpful president. But King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations said, "We don’t care. We think the war is wrong. It’s a terrible thing. It never should have happened. We can stop it now. Let’s do everything we can to stop it." But others prevailed, and it continued on, as you know, to the detriment of the whole country. But there were people who raised their voices and said no.

AMY GOODMAN: Walter Naegle, what about Bayard Rustin’s position on that?

WALTER NAEGLE: Yeah. Well, Bayard—actually, Bayard spoke out against the war very early on, in the early '60s. And he spoke at a big rally at Madison Square Garden in 1965. He was urging Dr. King—I mean, if you go into the FBI records and look at the files, he was urging Dr. King to speak out against the war in ’64, ’65, ’66. But I think by the time it happened—and Julian is right here—you know, I mean, they had a very strong ally in President Johnson, in the anti-poverty programs, the Great Society. And I think it—he wasn't saying that Dr. King shouldn’t speak out against it. He was against trying to marry the two movements as movements. I mean, Dr. King, as an individual, he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, after all. He had every right to speak out. And Bayard defended his right to speak out about it. But the idea of trying to marry the two movements, Bayard didn’t think that was a good strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Bond, we just got a tweet from The New York Times: Breaking news: Stop-and-frisk policy in New York City violated rights, judge rules. This is extremely significant, what has been happening in New York City, and I was wondering if you could respond?

JULIAN BOND: Well, indeed so. This is great news. And I’m sure the city will appeal. Bloomberg has just been not a good person on this issue, the mayor of New York. But this is great news. I’m sure people are dancing in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hope they’re not getting stopped and frisked as they do those dances.

WALTER NAEGLE: I’m so relieved that I won’t be stopped and frisked anymore, right?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Walter about Bayard Rustin’s time in jail, World War II.

WALTER NAEGLE: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: How long did he serve?

WALTER NAEGLE: Well, he was sentenced to three years, and I think he served almost three years, not—maybe a few months short of three years.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he describe for you those—that time in jail?

WALTER NAEGLE: Not so much to me, but he had—he did have a kind of a partner at that time. Obviously, they weren’t together. And there was quite a bit of correspondence. Davis Platt was his name. He’s no longer living. And Bayard had written a lot of letters to Davis, some of which show up in I Must Resist. And so I think there’s a pretty good accounting of his time in jail. And there—if you go to the National Archives and the Bureau of Prisons, there’s material there which has never really been released. There’s letters that were in to Bayard that never actually got to him and, vice versa, things that he tried to send out which never actually made it to their destination. So I think there’s more scholarship and more research that could be done.

AMY GOODMAN: As an ardent pacifist, Bayard Rustin spent 28 months in prison for refusing military service in World War II. He referenced his Quaker faith when explaining why he refused to enlist. This is a clip from the film Brother Outsider.

BAYARD RUSTIN: I am a Quaker. And as everyone knows, Quakers, for 300 years, have, on conscientious ground, been against participating in war. I was sentenced to three years in federal prison because I could not religiously and conscientiously accept killing my fellow man.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bayard Rustin. And Bayard Rustin, interestingly, described Dr. King when he went to visit him in Montgomery, said he had very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out. What was the significance, Julian Bond, of Bayard Rustin back then meeting Dr. King? And did you speak to King about Rustin?

JULIAN BOND: I don’t know. I’ve never had a conversation with King about Rustin. But I wanted to say that one of the things that’s significant about his prison time is that he’s got this correspondence with the warden. And it’s hard for us to imagine. Here’s a prisoner corresponding with the warden about prison conditions and actually meeting with him and saying, "You know, wouldn’t it be a good idea if you did this? Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you did that?" It’s just incredible that Rustin, as a prisoner, is trying to agitate for better conditions for prisoners.

But his significance with King is King really had a very, very limited idea about nonviolence. It is Bayard Rustin who really tutored him, who said, "This is what you have to do." And King—Rustin was horrified to see these pistols in King’s home, you know, and these armed guards around King’s home, because it just went against everything he believed in about nonviolence. If it hadn’t been for Bayard Rustin, Dr. King wouldn’t have had any understanding, I don’t think, of nonviolence. And Rustin tutored him and made him into the person we know he became.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the book The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones, and he writes, along the lines of what you’re saying, Julian, "Despite King’s emphasis on nonviolence and his familiarity with Gandhi, Rustin found that the minister had 'very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out.' In addition to finding the homes of King and other leaders under armed guard, he discovered several guns lying around King’s house. Rustin told King [that] during his travels to India he had learned that 'the great masses of Indians who were followers of Gandhi did not believe in non-violence,' but came to accept it as a tactic because it was effective. For that reason, he explained, it was particularly important 'that the leadership must be dedicated to it in principle' since 'if, in the flow and the heat of battle, a leader's house is bombed, and he shoots back, that is an encouragement to his followers to pick up guns.’ Writing about his experiences in Montgomery several years later, Rustin recalled, 'I do not believe that one does honor to Dr. King by assuming that, somehow, he had been prepared for his job ... The glorious thing is that he 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.'" Julian Bond?

JULIAN BOND: Yes, I mean, you can see that here is the student, Martin Luther King, and the teacher, Bayard Rustin. And the student is learning and learning and learning and widening his understanding of what this means, what nonviolence means. It’s just a great, great story. I think that we don’t know the whole of it. It would be interesting—Walter’s right—to see these non-published letters of Rustin’s, because I’m sure there’s just a wealth of information in there about him.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, the significance of the march after the march? As you’re pointing out, Julian, that you weren’t even quite aware of it at the time, but what it meant in the last five years of King’s life, who ends up being assassinated in 1968 as he’s organizing the Poor People’s March, and what this means 50 years later, as President Obama is about to give a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the actual day, and there will be another march a few days before, August 24th, led by Reverend Sharpton and others?

JULIAN BOND: Well, I think one of the things it means is that Americans can stop saying, "Well, we’ve solved all these problems." I think remembering this march, remembering what we’ve not done, remembering what needs to be done, will be a great lesson to Americans that there’s unfinished business in the civil rights field for Americans. There’s lots of things we need yet to do, and we need to put our shoulders to the wheel and do them. This is not a time to celebrate and say what a wonderful time that was, but to look back on what we tried to do then and ask ourselves, "Why haven’t we done more?" and to recommit ourselves to doing more and more and more and more, because there’s more to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Julian Bond, former chair of the NAACP, leading civil rights activist, helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, state legislator in Georgia for over two decades, wrote the foreword to the book I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. And thank you very much, Walter Naegle, Bayard Rustin’s partner from 1977 until he died in 1987. He’s now the archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.