As an adolescent, Bayard Rustin had many virtues. He was smart: He served as his high school valedictorian. He was respectful: After tackling opponents as an offensive lineman on his high school team, he would help them up and recite a line of poetry. And he was brave: While playing football, he organized a strike demanding equal accommodations for Black players who were forced to stay in substandard hotels on road trips.
Rustin (whose first name is pronounced BYE-urd) carried these values into adulthood, conceiving, organizing and executing in just two months the greatest protest in American history: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Yet, despite his role as an architect of a movement that worked to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation and discrimination, Rustin’s legacy was largely ignored. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin, who died in 1987.
Sixty years after the march, the biopic “Rustin” aims to give this visionary his due.
“He really is an exceptional human being. But you don’t want to direct exceptional, you want to direct the details,” the filmmaker George C. Wolfe said in an interview. “I forced myself to live inside the parameters of what he was dealing with.”
He came to understand those parameters better after beginning a five-year stint as chief creative officer of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta in 2009. “That’s when I really got in touch with knowing that he was gay, knowing that he was a Quaker,” Wolfe said, adding, “I went, ‘Oh my God, this story is phenomenal.’”
As played by Colman Domingo, Rustin is a captivating, confident figure with an effeminate style of speech and a missing tooth that was knocked out by the authorities. He had taken part in a number of actions that involved riding buses and trains in violation of Jim Crow laws, his partner, Walter Naegle, told me, and Rustin was arrested and beaten as a result. Rustin was open, both in the way he fought for equality, and in his life as a gay man, and he was not easily swayed.
Within the movement, he faced powerful opponents, and his queerness had everything to do with how he was treated. That and his status as an ex-Communist. But he won over many of his enemies, ignoring their prejudice as he worked single-mindedly on his mission. And he had powerful allies who supported his simple but grand idea of a mass demonstration to demand employment and equality for Black Americans.
“Rustin” (on Netflix starting Friday) explores the man’s life as well as his efforts to build the march from scratch. Here’s how scenes from the film stack up against archival photos from that era.
Friends Under Pressure
Rustin and King (played by Aml Ameen) were longtime friends, and Rustin often visited King’s family at home in Atlanta. Still, King faced pressure to cut Rustin from his inner circle, and did so three years before the march because he feared being tainted by his friend’s sexuality.
“Rustin was crushed, but eventually King realized that he needed Rustin’s organizing skills to translate his dream into a concrete reality,” said Michael C. Long, an editor and author of books including “More Than a Dream” (with Yohuru Williams) and “Bayard Rustin.” He added, “Rustin once said that King was a lousy organizer, and that he couldn’t organize a group of vampires to go to a blood bath.”
At first, King didn’t want to be part of the march, believing it wasn’t the best course of action for the movement. It was Rustin who persuaded a skeptical King that it was the right thing to do. “Rustin understood well that no one could inspire protesters better than King,” Long said. “It was no accident that Rustin scheduled King to be the last speaker of the day.” Today, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered to an impassioned crowd of 250,000, is synonymous with the march.
The film’s version of the speech was indeed shot in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but production was delayed by Covid until August of 2022. The late-summer heat meant they didn’t have to recreate that aspect of the historic day.
Rustin recruited an army of young activists to plan the march. For eight weeks, receptionists, transportation coordinators, fund-raisers and others worked around the clock at a Harlem townhouse on West 130th Street. They covered everything from the essential (organizing portable toilets and water stations) to the mundane (arranging peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunches).
A Baptist church-owned building, called the Utopia Neighborhood Club House, was donated by the Rev. Thomas Kilgore, a believer in the cause and a friend of Rustin. “The building is so humble, and its appearance almost belies its historic significance,” Long said.
The building was also the headquarters for the Guardians Association, a trusted group of off-duty Black police officers who provided security at the march. “Right behind that building was a courtyard where Rustin trained Black police officers from the New York Police Department in nonviolence,” Long said. “He didn’t want German shepherds inside the march. He didn’t want white thuggish police officers inside the march. He didn’t want the U.S. Army inside the march. He wanted Black police officers who believed in the march, who believed in the cause.”
As a gay man, Rustin had to fight for his presence in the march he created, and civil rights leaders gathered often to discuss his role. They included Roy Wilkins, head of the N.A.A.C.P.; the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell; the labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King; and a future congressman, John Lewis. The early argument was over whether the march was the best way to demand equality. But once it was evident that the march would take place, the thinking then became that Rustin should not be the face of it.
In the film, Rustin talks about the suffocating chains of Negro respectability, the impeccable ways that African Americans tried to conduct themselves in public for social acceptance. Wolfe elaborated, “I was raised very specifically that as a Black person, once you leave your front door, you must be perfect because anything you do that is not perfect will reflect badly on the race.” Rustin’s fellow leaders “believed that the white press, and they weren’t wrong in this, but definitely J. Edgar Hoover, was going to use the fact that Bayard was a homosexual to discredit the march and to discredit them.”
A Persuasive Mentor
A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman), a founder of the nation’s first African American-led labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was Rustin’s mentor and march director. Rustin loved Randolph, and always insisted on calling him Mr. Randolph. Randolph called him “Mr. March on Washington.” More than any other civil rights leader, Randolph stood by Rustin when he was attacked because of his sexuality.
At the march, Randolph “gave the most radical speech that day that presented his and Rustin’s socialist vision for a restructured economy,” Long said, explaining that it called for a national minimum wage and major training programs.
Randolph, and King played a crucial role in persuading others, particularly Wilkins and Powell, to support the demonstration. Many of these men approached activism methodically and resisted hasty, idealistic plans, like the march.
Envy was also a factor, as well as a sense of entitlement. In the film, Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) is adamantly opposed to Rustin’s involvement in the march.
An Overshadowed Woman
The March on Washington, much like the civil rights movement, was defined by the patriarchy. “Rustin” explores the critical roles that women played in organizing and their displeasure with being left out of crucial speaking and leadership positions. For that reason, Anna Arnold Hedgeman (played by CCH Pounder), a civil-rights leader, politician and educator, threatened to boycott the march. But she ultimately recruited 40,000 people to attend.
“Anna Arnold Hedgeman looks so prim and proper, but if you scratch the surface just a little bit, you’ll find a radical militant advocate for the presence of a woman during the official program at the Lincoln Memorial,” Long said. “She lost that battle.” He said she pleaded with Rustin and Randolph to include a woman among the organizers and speakers. But “that was a sexist, patriarchal bunch that she was up against.”
A few women, including Josephine Baker, were allowed to speak at preliminary events but not at the official Lincoln Memorial program that we remember today. Hedgeman also wanted to call the day Rosa Parks Day, Long said, noting that Parks didn’t have a speaking role. To allay Hedgeman’s concerns, Rustin suggested including Mahalia Jackson, to which Hedgeman responded, “That’s great, she’s singing, but we want somebody to speak on our behalf.”