Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the March: Transcript

February 29, 2024

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The JFK35 podcast is made possible through generous support from the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation. 

COLMAN DOMINGO: We are going to put together the largest peaceful protest in the history of this nation. 

ACTRESS: How big? 

COLMAN DOMINGO: 100,000 people. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: That was Oscar-nominated Best Actor, Colman Domingo, portraying civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. In a new Netflix film, Domingo plays the charismatic activist, who served key roles in organizing the largest single demonstration in the United States for its time. 

MATT PORTER: We'll talk with the producers of the film and also a historian, who was there, in August 1963, when Rustin an estimated 250,000 people marched on Washington. All that coming up on this episode of JFK35

JOHN KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. 



MATT PORTER: Hello, I'm Matt Porter. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And I'm Jamie Richardson. Welcome to the first episode of the New season of JFK 35. On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people, of different races, religions, and economic backgrounds, convened on the nation's capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr, A. Philip Randolph, and John Lewis are remembered for their powerful words to the crowd that day, there is one man who didn't make a speech but left an indelible mark on the march. 

MATT PORTER: His name was Bayard Rustin. Rustin, a man who believed in non-violent protests, served as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr and others. He was also a gay Black man living in an era when that was still illegal in some parts of the United States. He was a charismatic community organizer and served as the deputy director and principal organizer of the march under A. Philip Randolph. Without him, many say the march could not have happened as it did. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: His story is told in a new Netflix film, produced by Higher Ground Media, a production company started by Barack and Michelle Obama. Here's a clip of actor Colman Domingo, who portrayed Rustin and is nominated for a Best Actor Award in next week's Academy Awards. In the clip, Rustin is having a conversation, with white police officers from Washington DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King and others would speak. 

On the day of your march, the entire DC police force has been mobilized along with 500 reserves, 2,500 National Guard, 4,000 Army soldiers, and, per orders of the Pentagon, 19,000 troops. 

COLMAN DOMINGO: Well, I hope you'll have something for them to do, because they will not be needed here. And whoever has direct dealings with Mr Hoover, let him know that, on August 28, Black, White, young, old, rich, working class, poor will descend on Washington DC. And there's nothing he can do to stop it. 

MATT PORTER: Joining me now are producers, Tonia Davis and Bruce Cohen. Tonia serves as head of motion pictures for Higher Ground Media. She's executive produced the documentary, Becoming, about Michelle Obama, the Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Camp, and the critically acclaimed animated series, Ada Twist. 

Under her leadership, Higher Ground also presented feature films, including Fatherhood, starring Kevin Hart, and Worth, based on former JFK Library Foundation Chairman, Kenneth Feinberg, and his memoir, What is Life Worth. Tonia and Higher Ground recently executive produced the movie, Leave the World Behind, starring Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali, which hit the number five spot, in Netflix's Most Popular Films, with more than 140 million views in its first 73 days. 

Bruce is an Oscar and Tony winning, Emmy nominated producer of film, television, theater, and live events. He won an Academy Award for Best Picture for American Beauty, and earned additional Best Picture nominations for Milk and Silver Linings Playbook. He produced several Broadway plays and musicals, including winning the Tony for Best Play, in 2020, for co-producing Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance. And he received a Tony nomination for co-producing Jeremy O Harris's SLAVE Play. He is currently co-chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. 

Tonia and Bruce, thank you for joining me. 

BRUCE COHEN: Thank you for having us. 

TONIA DAVIS: It's great to be here. 

MATT PORTER: Great. I want to start, before we get into the film, how did you both come to find yourself with this script and the idea of this film, in front of you, about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin? 

BRUCE COHEN: Dustin Lance Black, who is one of the screenwriters along with Julian Breece, had sent me the screenplay that they had worked on together. I actually knew who Bayard Rustin was, because there is a fantastic documentary, called Brother Outsider, that I had seen in the '90s. So he'd sort of been someone, in the back of my mind, of an unsung hero and an LGBT icon that had never gotten his due. 

So when Lance, who I had worked with on Milk, let me know that he had been working on a script about Bayard, I was very excited to read it. I was even more excited once I read it and really wanted to do everything humanly possible to get it made. And fortuitously, right around that same time is when Higher Ground, the production company run by the Obamas, had opened with their deal at Netflix. 

And as I was learning that more and more people in Hollywood had never heard of Bayard Rustin, I do remember thinking to myself, well, I know one person who knows who Bayard Rustin is. And the person who I was thinking of is the gentleman who had bestowed upon Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And that was President Barack Obama. 

So when I saw that he now had a production company, along with Michelle, that's what gave me the idea to send the script to Tonia. And thank goodness, I did. 

MATT PORTER: And Tonia, what was it like when Bruce came to you with the Rustin script and idea? 

TONIA DAVIS: Well, first of all, it was thrilling. Because I didn't know Bruce yet, personally, but I knew his work and had long been an admirer of a number of the films that he'd produced, including Milk, including Silver Linings Playbook, including American Beauty. 

And so I was receiving a phone call from Bruce Cohen. It came in as a message, left for me, over lunch, regarding Bayard Rustin, a name that I'd really only heard when my now boss, President Obama, had given him this medal. And so I called Bruce back, right away. We introduced ourselves-- introduced ourselves, quickly. And then he sent me this beautiful screenplay. 

And as soon as he explained to me what the project was, the scope of the timeline that we were going to be working through and telling, and the-- really-- goals of the project, creatively, not to mention that George C Wolfe, who was a director I'd always admired but who most recently had made this film, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. As soon as Bruce started talking, I was jumping for joy and saying, yes, right away, and just started to try to formulate how I was going to talk to President and Mrs Obama about it. Because this was going to be our first film from Higher Ground. 

And I got this whole pitch prepared. I wrote it out. I practiced in front of the mirror. And then, as soon as I got on the phone with President Obama, I said, we also received a screenplay from this great producer and this great screenwriter. And it's about Bayard Rustin. And then I prepared to go into long explanation and this long speech. And Obama just said, that sounds terrific. We should do that one, for sure. Let me read it. And then he read it. And fell in love with it, as I did. 

So we got involved. Bruce was producing the project for a number of years before Higher Ground even existed. And then we got involved and, together, took the movie to Netflix, George Wolfe directing, and got it up on its feet. 

MATT PORTER: And so, what was it for you, about Rustin's story, that you made-- that made both of you think this could be a powerful film for today's audience? 

BRUCE COHEN: I had the general idea and dream that it was a huge problem and shame that no one knew who Bayard Rustin was. But what I didn't know, until I read the screenplay, was the extraordinary story of how he had the idea for and then pulled off the March on Washington. And one of the seminal character relations in the film, which is him and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who-- they had been very close. 

Bayard had been a mentor of his. Bayard is the one who had really taught Dr. King about nonviolence. And then-- slight spoiler alert, if you haven't seen the film-- but their arc, which is all completely true to history, which is that Dr. King was not able to stand up against the forces of homophobia and allowed Bayard to be basically fired from the movement in 1960. And then the arc that led Dr. King to being able to stand up for Bayard, very strongly, just before the March in 1963. 

So in addition to this brilliantly important historical story that had been lost, there was this incredible personal story at the center of it. So it just started feeling like a really good movie to me. 

MATT PORTER: And Tonia, was there anything that grabbed at you, about the script, that you thought this is perfect for today? 

TONIA DAVIS: Well, it was the notion that, in order to do your best work, you had to be who you are in your full, naked self, publicly. And so it was the notion that your power was going to come from your own authenticity and honesty and from celebrating yourself and your differences rather than hiding them. And that is a hugely powerful piece of Bayard's story.

You know, Bayard was an openly gay man in an era when that wasn't at all the norm. And he suffered-- rather, he faced potential real consequences, in his job and his career, and his, also, personal safety, to do that and to be that. And to tell the story of how he was able to stand in his own truth, and using that truth, in many respects, was able to really change the course of history, was just an incredible story and an inspiring one to be a part of and an inspiring one, we thought, we hoped for audiences in this country and around the world. 

MATT PORTER: And so how do you tell that story? He was a complex figure. He had this pacifism that put him in jail in World War II. He was obviously, as you said, a gay man in a world where that was not something you could be public about. And then, at the same time, here he is, sort of in the shadows, organizing what becomes the largest demonstration in the nation's capital. How do you tell that story and do it justice? 

BRUCE COHEN: Well, everything you just said is part of why it's a great story. There's so many elements. He's got so many obstacles. So that all hopefully leads towards good moviemaking. As far as doing it justice, that's always the challenge of, well, pretty much every film or TV show in general but, specifically, true stories. Because you're never going to actually be able to tell the story, in all of its detail, as it actually happened. You're always needing to find out, figure out what's the way in, in particular, that we want to tell. 

And I think, in this case, one of the big leaps that really paid off, that Julian and Lance made, was to focus on the March on Washington, itself. We have a little bit of the story that starts with the backstory, in 1960, as I mentioned, because it's the setup of the Dr. Martin Luther King relationship. But the most of the film is in the months leading up to the March on Washington. 

And that decision, to tell that story, as opposed to trying to do a soup to nuts biography of Bayard Rustin, we all believed, very strongly, in that story. And I think the film is proof that that was a brilliant move. Because it's centering the story around a very specific incident, a very specific amount of time. And that's, in my opinion, often a lot easier, to make a great movie of a true story, than if you're trying to show someone's whole life, in two hours, which is pretty much impossible to do justice to. 

MATT PORTER: Speaking of the focusing on the March on Washington, I think part of what gets missed, today, is that everyone thinks the March happened, everyone was happy about it, everyone went, had this amazing day, and it was done. And it was perfect. And your story really shows that there were a number of breaking points, and a lot of people were divided. Should they picket the White House, too? Or who goes out? How long do they stay? 

And it wasn't perfect. It took a lot of finesse to pull it off. And that's why you have this character, Rustin, who was gathering all these parties together. But talk about that, how you had to basically tell a story that most people probably thought wasn't as complex as it turned out to be. 

TONIA DAVIS: So the Obamas are, almost more than anything, originally, grassroots community organizers. And so one of the reasons that President Obama was so excited about this movie, in particular, and this perspective on the story, from Julian and Lance and George, was that it didn't cover up any of the backroom complications of what it takes to plan a march, like this, and to plan collective action, but instead really celebrated all of the different machinations, the political complications, backstabbing, et cetera, and then how Bayard, and his team of organizers, were able to navigate through that to create this sort of once in a lifetime, once in a generation gigantic public display of unity. 

So in terms of why we wanted to show that and how we showed that, that was actually a very, very, very beginning conversation of what do we hope to accomplish. And one of the things that we hoped to accomplish was showing that the impossible is possible. But it doesn't happen easily. It doesn't happen overnight. And it doesn't happen without every single person making compromises and sacrifices and coming into the room and being able to argue and disagree until you reach a conclusion. 

We all know that the March on Washington didn't change anything overnight for so many people. And so much of the civil rights journey happened afterwards and is still happening. But it was this symbol, and this moment of great unity, that was compiled by, put together by a number of different factions, who came together, because they had a reason to and saw the greater purpose in doing so. 

MATT PORTER: What was, I mean, the challenge, really, of getting the right director and the right cast for this film? Like you've got a star studded cast. The director is awesome. But all those things have to come together. And what was that like finding the right mix of people to do this movie right? 

BRUCE COHEN: Well, I would I'd start by saying one of the things Tonia and I learned on this movie is, if you, as a producer, want a world class, superlative cast to give extraordinary performances, hire George C Wolfe to be your director. Everything else kind of flows from there. George is just such a brilliant visionary. He's really one of the great directors working today. He's a true actor's director. 

And when it came to our specific cast, he also has an ensemble of actors that, between Broadway and films, he's worked with, again and again, that will pretty much put aside anything in their schedules to work with him, including Colman Domingo and Audra McDonald and Jeffrey Wright and Glynn Turman, and the list goes on and on. 

So yes, we understood that we needed the perfect director and an absolutely extraordinary cast to really make sure the film lived up to its full potential. And I think we got that with George and all of the actors that came on board to be a part of his journey. 

MATT PORTER: It really did come together, so well. With the 1960s, you cover this era. It's an era of demonstrations and protest and activism. How do you guys look at that, from the film, and then kind of look at today's activism and focus on civil rights and, now, LGBTQ rights being out there? Do you draw any similarities from the fights they were having, the style of how they had their activism, from then to now? 

TONIA DAVIS: In addition to being an incredible filmmaker, Bruce Cohen is also an activist in this exact space. And so he is the perfect person to answer the question. I'll say, for me, the parallels are almost scary. The tactics are different. The tools available are different. But the intentions feel very very similar. 

BRUCE COHEN: That was one of the things-- and thank you, Tonia, for those nice words-- one of the truly shocking things for us, making the film, was not just how relevant and necessary the message of the film and the retelling of what happened was. When we started trying to get the movie made, before COVID, but, shockingly, how much it was even more relevant once the movie came out. I mean we watched history start to go backwards, as far as LGBTQ rights, as far as civil rights, in the course of the film. 

So it was quite bracing bringing it out, last year, in the winter of 2023. There's a line in the film where, early on, in the film, Bayard Rustin says, counting on the courts to eradicate discrimination-- that's madness. Well, that was true in 1960, in the early 1960s. 

And then we had a long period where, as Americans, we became spoiled to believe that it actually might be the Supreme Court's job to eradicate discrimination. And in fact, in case after case after case, that's what they were doing was trying to move towards a more just America, to more closely live up to the "all men are created equal," which should, of course, have been all humans are created equal-- credos of our founding. 

But now, the movie comes out last year. We're in a period where the Supreme Court is actually taking away rights that we have, taking them back away from us, decision after decision. And that's something that we couldn't have ever imagined, even in 2018, when we started doing the film. So it was a real wake up call to how this movie's message is more relevant today than ever. 

MATT PORTER: Wow. A reminder that Rustin's words are still true today. I just have a couple more questions. This one's for Tonia about Higher Ground Media. President and Mrs. Kennedy were always fierce advocates of the arts and proponents that the arts can inform and educate. They had many artists come to the White House. They started that-- restarted that tradition. 

And I kind of think of President Obama and Mrs. Obama, similarly, now that they're out of the White House, they're continuing that leadership by forming this company. It's, for us, as the Kennedy Library, it feels so connected to us. How do you feel about the mission of Higher Ground and what you hope to continue to accomplish in your next couple of years in whatever you produce? 

TONIA DAVIS: Yeah. Thank you for drawing that parallel and for asking the question. So actually, President and Mrs. Obama's love of the arts started way before they were in the White House together. One of their first dates, famously, was to a movie together. And so they'd always not only been huge supporters of the arts but actually really found connection with each other and through their families-- and inside of their family, rather, through the arts. 

When they were in the White House, they hosted every major singer, songwriter, playwright. Lin-Manuel Miranda came and performed Hamilton. They went on dates to New York City, occasionally. 

MATT PORTER: I heard that Hamilton thing did really well, by the way. 

TONIA DAVIS: That Hamilton thing did really-- that Hamilton thing did really well. And in fact, Bruce Springsteen came, before he was on Broadway, and did that show, actually, for the president, as well. And so they always felt not only that it was their job, in the White House, to really support arts and culture, American arts and culture, and to give it a big stage, but, also, to really celebrate both the artists, that you've heard of, and also the artists that you maybe haven't yet heard of. 

That extended even when they were having their national portraits done in the portrait gallery, famously choosing Kehinde Wiley, an artist who was well-known. But certainly doing the portraits of President and Mrs. Obama catapulted him into a new stratosphere. So they've always felt that it was part of their mission to tell stories and to bring people together through that storytelling. That essentially 99.999% of us are identical in every way, and that we're always focused on that .0001% piece of differences among us. But if we can actually connect through storytelling, find the common humanity, that the world would be just a little bit of a kinder, better place. 

So in terms of Higher Ground Media, what we are circling now, what we're doing next, the amazing partnership we've had with Bruce and George and Lance, on the movie Rustin, the goals and the mission of the company are very much as they have always been, which is to tell stories aligned with our values, with filmmakers who share those values and can push us into high quality, wonderful films and television shows, and to do so for a wide audience. 

The Obamas want to meet the audience, where they are, and tell stories that are appealing to people to watch and to think through and that hopefully make the world just a little bit of a more connected place. 

MATT PORTER: Well, that's awesome. I'm looking forward to the next project. And Bruce, maybe this question is for you or for both of you, but when this episode airs, it'll be about a week before the big Oscar night. Your Best Actor, Colman Domingo, getting a nomination. 

For many people, they're going to watch the Oscars and see that Oscar moment clip that people talk about, and they'll see his brief snippet of Rustin. And for many, that might be the first time they are introduced to the character. What do you hope people who don't have knowledge of Bayard Rustin will learn and take away after watching the full film? 

BRUCE COHEN: Well, the larger dream of the whole project, from the beginning, was to give Bayard Rustin a place in history, so that people know who he is moving forward, so that his name does not get lost and his deeds do not get lost and that, from now on, he's taught in history books and people know who he is and what he did and what a significant American he is. 

And so for us, Coleman getting the Oscar nomination for Best Actor is one of the largest and best ways to help make sure that happens. And I will also add, though, that one thing George brought to the table, which we all completely supported, including Coleman, was that and-- in capital letters-- AND while we're telling the story, we have to entertain. 

We all felt like, if this movie was not as joyous and fun and charismatic and lively as Bayard Rustin was, himself, that Bayard would come back from his grave and kick all of our butts. So the hope of the takeaway, certainly for people who haven't heard anything about the movie yet, but for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who see the great clip that we'll choose and get to be introduced to Coleman on the Academy Awards, is that they'll watch the film. And that there'll be another notch on the list, the ever-growing list of people around the world who now know who Bayard Rustin is and what he did. 

MATT PORTER: Well, I wish you all the best of luck. And I hope that the Oscars are just another springboard for you all and that many, many more watch this movie. It is available on Netflix. So thank you both for joining us. 

TONIA DAVIS: Thank you, Matt. 

BRUCE COHEN: Thank you, Matt. Pleasure to be here. 


MATT PORTER: While the Netflix film will introduce Bayard Rustin's name to new audiences around the world, the history of the entire march will also be highlighted. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Joining us, to talk about Bayard Rustin and the historic nature of the March on Washington, is historian and Martin Luther King Jr Centennial Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, Clayborne Carson. Dr. Carson, thank you for joining us today. 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Good to be here with you. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: So just starting from the beginning, can you tell us a little bit about the type of family life that Bayard Rustin had growing up? He had grandparents who raised him. They were Quakers. How did that influence his life in the civil rights and gay rights movements? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think, in some ways, that's a part of his life I don't know a lot about. But I understand that he grew up with these strong beliefs from his parents and his family. And I understand that he was a wonderful athlete, someone who was quite well regarded in his community, someone who came up with a lot of confidence. 

And I can't think of any other civil rights leaders who could have made fame as a singer or perhaps other fields. But that was definitely the case with him. He was multi-talented. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And amongst his talents, ended up being an organizing. So how did he develop these talents, who were some of his most important mentors early in his life? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: AJ Muste, I guess, would be one of his main advisors. He got involved in movements, while he was in college, during the 1930s, as many people did. And ultimately, became drawn to the pacifist movement. I think that was his main background. It fit his personality. 

He wanted to build the movement to change the world but through nonviolent means. And I think that was his gift that he brought into the civil rights movement. I mean, he felt that he had a background, including going to prison for his beliefs, that qualified him to be a credible leader, someone who could advise someone like a Martin Luther King. 

And I think his ability to come to Montgomery and fairly quickly gain Martin Luther King's confidence, in part, because Coretta Scott King had had a background of her own. I think that both of them really influenced Martin Luther King. She was probably more drawn toward the pacifist ideas than Martin was at that time. 

She had seen Bayard Rustin while she was in high school. And of course, trusted him when he arrived in Montgomery at a time when probably accepting outside advice was a little bit dangerous. Because you didn't know whether that would hurt the movement. But I think she saw him as a friend of the movement. And that allowed Martin to see him in that role. 

MATT PORTER: In the early part of the civil rights movement, I'm talking in the '30s, as things were starting to develop, Rustin briefly joined the Young Communist League, like maybe a number of African-Americans were drawn to initially. What did that experience teach him and why did he ultimately leave that movement? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think, as you mentioned, a lot of people became infatuated with communist ideas, in part, because during the Depression, the economic issues seemed to be paramount. There was a sense of how can we solve this issue, how can we deal with the number of people who are out of work, how can we reform the economic system, so that it provides more opportunities for workers. All of these things were prime concerns of many people who went through the 1930s. 

And that became paramount in their interests. Even as late as the March on Washington, it was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And they wanted to make sure that the job issue remained paramount in the movements concerned. 

MATT PORTER: And why do you think so many left? There were a number of people who got involved, but then they quickly left and founded their own movement. Was there something about communism that made them edgy and wanting to get away from that, maybe, politicized group at the time? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think that the doctrines were not as attractive as say the doctrines of the pacifist movement in the sense that it was all about economics and not about other concerns. And I think that led Rustin and many other people to think that it was wrong just to be narrowly concerned about the economic system, but you needed an ideology, first of all, that didn't rely on revolution as the solution to the problem. That was something that was obviously not going to be nonviolent. And I think that that's what led them to believe more in the nonviolent ideas. 

Now, one of the things that's also true is the importance of India and Gandhi. They saw, in the world, a nonviolent alternative in the anti-colonial struggle. And the fact that Gandhi was having a great deal of impact in India. He hadn't succeeded yet, but he certainly showed that there was another way of achieving greater equity in the world, of ending colonialism. It didn't have to be nonviolent. It didn't have to be violent. It could be overthrown through non-violent means. So that was an important lesson for a lot of people during that time. 

MATT PORTER: And part of why we're talking about Bayard Rustin, for this episode, is obviously the new movie that is receiving critical acclaim. In that movie, it mentions a moment in Rustin's past where he was sort of permanently disfigured, after being beaten by police, after refusing to take a back seat in the bus. This was obviously passive, nonviolent resistance. Can you talk, maybe, if you have any knowledge of the experience that he had or why Rustin believed so deeply in nonviolent resistance despite the violence? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, all I could say on that is that it takes a lot of courage to respond non-violently. I've gone through some similar experiences. And I can tell you it is difficult. For me, it was during what was called the "Watts Riot." I called it a rebellion. But I remember getting hit by a policeman. And part of my nonviolence came from, I wasn't going to win a fight, violently, with a policeman. So it was just made a lot more sense. 

But I guess, for many people like Rustin, it was a philosophy not just a tactic. It was something that they truly believed in and were willing to give their lives for. And I think that's something that grew stronger, over the years, that he began to see that that was not just the best way of responding to injustice but the wisest way. It was the way that was going to ultimately win. And it was going to win, because you didn't reduce yourself to the level of your opponent. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And one of the other people involved that was, I think, sort of a mentor figure for Rustin was the labor union leader, A Philip Randolph. What was their relationship like? How did they meet? What did they learn or gain from each other? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, Rustin, I think, was a very energetic person, who could help a Philip Randolph. By that time, he was a pretty mature leader. And I guess I'd just call him an older leader. When he wanted to get President Roosevelt to allow Black workers to get many of the jobs in the war industries, he used the threat of a nonviolent march in Washington. This is before World War I-- before the United States gets involved in World War I. 

And that threat was something that turned out to be effective. It did get many Black workers jobs in the war industries, particularly out here in California, sea port industries. So I guess that that was, for Rustin, his way of proving his value to A Philip Randolph. And that idea of the march on Washington as a way of putting pressure on the president, of course, is something that returns in the 1960s, when, again, you have a president who might be persuaded to join, to support the movement, but maybe needed a little bit of a push that a march could provide. 

Randolph didn't have to actually have the march. It was just the threat of the march. But I think, for Rustin, it was something that really needed to happen. And it needed to happen on a very large scale. That march, by the way, was my introduction to the movement. I was 19 years old, at that time, and managed to find a way of getting a ride there. 

And it was-- well, one way of putting it is when I got there, I saw all these people. I later found that 200,000 was the population of the state I was living in. That was New Mexico at the time. And to see all of them together was more people, by far, than I had seen in all my life. The notion that this could have been organized? 

I wasn't able to meet Bayard Rustin. But I met other people. I remember Stokely Carmichael, one of the people I met. And he had actually tried to persuade me not to go. He said, why go to that picnic? And why don't you join us in the South? And I didn't want to tell him that going to the picnic was the most radical thing I'd done in my life. 

And it was really an experience that really changed the course of my life. I knew that, once I had been there, this was bigger than anything I was likely to ever experience. And I wanted to be connected to that movement. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: That's incredible. I definitely want to touch back on that when we reach that moment in history. But you mentioned Martin Luther King, earlier, as somebody-- or Rustin and Martin Luther King being important to each other. Can you talk about how they met and what their relationship was like? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, Rustin was among a number of people who came to Montgomery after the Bus Boycott started. And all of them wanted to advise Martin Luther King, because you could imagine, here, is the largest Black movement of that time. And here is a young minister, who's never led a movement before. And you see a number of people basically saying, don't blow this opportunity. You've got to build an effective movement. And it's going to take a long time. 

The movement, the Bus Boycott movement went on for 381 days. And to have it led by a minister, in his mid-20s, who had never led such a movement, was almost an impossible thought. And I think it was quite useful and necessary that people, like Rustin, came to Montgomery, offered their services. In Rustin's case, I think what I recall from the stories, I've heard that Coretta kind of spoke for him and vouched for him, said that this is the person I met in high school. And you should trust his advice. 

And I think that that relationship was a very strong relationship, through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but, also, afterwards when Martin began to emerge as a leader not just in Montgomery but more on a national level or at least on a South-wide level. And Rustin helped in terms of forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King led. 

And I think that it was interesting that, here is the Southern Leadership Council, for Black ministers in the South. The idea really came out of New York City. And it came out of people who knew that this was something, a coordinating committee that would help spread the movement, from Montgomery to other cities. 

And working with other ministers, even someone like Fred Shuttlesworth, in Birmingham. I recall that he wrote a letter to Martin saying, we need such a movement in Birmingham. Why don't you come over here and help us build one? And of course, Birmingham, he eventually came there and found, as Shuttlesworth would have already told him, that building a movement in Montgomery compared to Birmingham, Birmingham was much tougher. The resistance was much stronger. Montgomery was kind of on the periphery of the segregationist South in terms of the Klan was not as strong there. 

In Birmingham, not only the Klan was strong, but the Police Chief Bull Connor was fiercely segregationist. The governor, at that time, was George Wallace, a fierce segregationist. So it was not surprising that King was somewhat reluctant to accept Shuttlesworth's advice for a long time. 

But I think that he knew that if he won in Birmingham-- and this turned out to be true, that if you could defeat segregation in Birmingham, the battle was in its end stage. This was a sign that segregation was not going to succeed, and it could be overcome. 

But people died. And it was a struggle that had led to the Civil Rights Act. But it also led to the killings of three young Black children in the 16th Street Baptist Church. So I guess there was four-- yeah, there was four children that were killed that September. So I think it showed that the segregationist movement was strong, but became a stimulus for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

MATT PORTER: So amidst all the violence that was going on, as you just talked about, when was the idea of having this large March on Washington, this large peaceful march in Washington sort of started and where was Rustin's role as far as the early stages of planning this massive march in DC? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, it didn't start with King. He was not really that much involved in the march plan. And I think my own feeling about it-- only a lot of the people who could confirm it, one way or the other, are no longer with us. 

But probably, it stayed in A Philip Randolph's mind and certainly Bayard Rustin's mind that this was a way of putting some pressure on the government and, particularly, John Kennedy. He was very reluctant to introduce civil rights legislation. And even Birmingham-- Birmingham caused him to take a stand. And the march was kind of a continuation of that. You have a reluctant president who says, what if civil rights legislation doesn't pass? I'll be in worse shape than before. And how is it going to get passed? And I've got other priorities for my administration. 

So you have a reluctant president. And having the march became a way of bringing that pressure to Washington. And I think that it succeeded in that way. Well, I think it succeeded, also, because it turned out to be nonviolent. And despite the fact that military forces were brought to Washington, in case there was violence, what was striking, for us who were there that day, is all those people, and, as far as I know, there weren't any significant acts of violence done at that day. 

It was kind of like Stokely Carmichael had told me, it was a picnic. It was a day of speeches and singing. And everybody went home. And as far as I know, there was no violence. So it was something that was successful. 

And I think Bayard Rustin's role in it was tremendous. I wouldn't have known about it at the time, because I was just a spectator. But I understand that organizing an event, like that, was a major victory for him. He was able to pull together lots of different forces from the labor movement, the civil rights movement in different places, all these disparate leaders who all wanted to speak, and trying to make it so that there would be a mixture of singing and speeches, that people would kind of stick to five to seven minute speeches rather than long speeches. 

In fact, the only one who broke that rule was Martin Luther King. And my understanding is he did it with Bayard Rustin's encouragement. He said, well, you're the last speaker. If you want to go a little bit over, it's OK with me. No one's going to come after you. 

MATT PORTER: They won't be playing the Oscar music to bring Martin Luther King off the lectern. 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Yeah, that would have been interesting if that had happened. Because as you probably realize, we have the draft of the original speech. And it was a five to seven minute speech. And everything else was extemporaneous. It wasn't the first time he had given a speech about his dream. But he knew it well enough that it could be extemporaneous. And it's interesting, today, that people still call it the "I Have a Dream" speech. It wasn't named that by Martin Luther King. 

MATT PORTER: To me, it's really interesting, because everyone sees it as, you said, a hugely successful event, sort of this uniting of different factions, as you mentioned, for one peaceful cause. But I don't want to overshadow, there were disagreements, some big disagreements up to the organization of the March, where not everybody was on board with all the original plans. Do you want to talk, at all, a little bit about how all those negotiations happened to pull it off, to get those different people together? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Yeah, it was a lot of compromise and bringing, as you mentioned, lots of different people from different perspectives. Probably the March would not have happened without the events in Birmingham. But Fred Shuttlesworth, as I recall, was not among the invited speakers. And he was the leader of the Birmingham movement. So there was a mixture. There were people who were organizational leaders at the national level, religious leaders, cultural leaders. 

And I think that was Rustin's genius of bringing together all of the different elements of what could be called the National Civil Rights movement. And I wish that Fred Shuttlesworth had been there. But I think that it was also the case that they wanted something that would convince one person, and that was John Kennedy, to get behind the Civil Rights Act. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And there was a Gallup poll, at the time, that polled Americans and said that they found that 23% of Americans, who had heard about the March, had a positive view of it. And so it, obviously, in addition to segregationists, who would not care or want this at all, some civil rights activists or people who are sort of more pro civil rights were worried that the March could jeopardize Kennedy's impending or pending civil rights legislation. Can you kind of explain that rationale or how Rustin and the leaders of the March handled that? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I don't know that they handled it so much. They had faith that the March was going to have a good impact. Probably, Kennedy and a lot of his advisors were worried to the end that something would go wrong, and the Civil Rights Act would not pass. And we don't know whether it would have if Kennedy had lived. 

Partly what happened is he was assassinated. And Lyndon Johnson became president. And Lyndon Johnson got behind the passage of the act and probably had more skills in Congress than John Kennedy did. It's hard to know. But I think that it took a lot to get that passed. And those of us, who were alive at that time, I think if you had taken a vote, it wouldn't have been unanimous in terms of its chances of passage. And I'm glad it did. 

We went through the same thing with the Voting Rights Act. But I think, at first, what I recall is that everyone was afraid of the filibuster that had been used many times to stop civil rights legislation and other kinds of legislation. And it had been an effective tool to stop change. And the fact that it was overcome took a lot of maneuvering by people, like Lyndon Johnson, who had been in the Senate and kind of understood how to get it through Congress. 

And of course, it was, in my view, one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history. It's certainly, ultimately changed the segregationist system, because it took a while to get it enforced. And of course, you had to deal with the voting rights issue separately. But bringing about desegregation was a fundamental change. It was important in the same way that, when we talk about school segregation, it took a Supreme Court decision Brown versus Board of Education to begin that change. And it took many, many years to be finalized. 

But segregation actually, remarkably occurred in fewer years in many cities. And I think a city, like Atlanta, was ready for it. A city like Birmingham probably took longer and a lot of the rural South many years before change really came. But at least you had a legal basis for it. And I think the two acts, the '64 Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the fundamental changes of that decade and, as I said, American history. 

MATT PORTER: I want to just come back to the March, just for a couple more questions. And we want to talk to you briefly about your experience in the March. But before that, Bayard Rustin, his affiliation with the Young Communist League and also whispers about his sexuality, he was the deputy director for A Philip Randolph. Were there ever concerns about Bayard Rustin's exposure during the March and the planning of it? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, I think it's remarkable that everyone knew about the supposed secret of Rustin's sexual orientation. And so it became kind of, well, we know the other side of it, too, that he's an effective organizer. He's a person who has talents that nobody else has. 

And at the time, it didn't really bring about the major changes that we would see later in terms of changes in American views about homosexuality. But I think looking back, people can see that he played this important role in history. And it was something that-- I guess, the way I would put it is that it was something that was seen as potentially damaging. So it was always a source of worry. 

But nearly everybody I knew about, who knew him, seemed to accept the bargain. They probably wished that it wasn't, that he was straight, but not to the point of saying, I'm not going to accept his advice. I'm not going to accept his help. And I think the major thing was don't get caught. And that was the downtime in his life, when he did get caught. And I think that that taught him a lesson, too. He had to recognize that could not only damage himself but damage the movement at that time. 

MATT PORTER: And for you, personally, you were there at the March. We would love to give you a minute to tell us how you felt being there as a witness to history? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Well, for me, it was something that-- I was invited to a student conference, the National Student Association meeting that was in Indianapolis, Indiana, I guess, that year. It was actually on the campus of the University of Indiana. And I was offered a ride with a group from Indianapolis. And I didn't expect to go there. I had no way of getting home, actually. 

But I did get a ride to the March. And once I got there, it was interesting. There were 200,000 people. And I didn't see a single person that I knew. Because I just kind of wandered off by myself. I didn't know too many of the people from Indianapolis. And I just kind of wandered around for the March. And it was my first trip to Washington DC. It was all new. 

I was from a small town in New Mexico. And here were all these people, all these Black people. I saw far more Black people than, probably, in the rest of my life. And the fact that they were all there, they were all in this big event. 

One thing I do remember was a lot of these people, who I'd only seen on television, that included entertainers and not just leaders, but actually seeing them in person was a major, major point in my life. I don't know if anything can compare to coming to an event like that. Because I will never, ever be an event like that, with that many stars, with that many prominent individuals all in one place. And just seeing the strength of the movement. 

It might have been Stokely Carmichael's picnic, but I didn't see him there. It was the biggest event in my life. And I was really glad that I went. And I came away from it thinking, I've got to get find ways of getting involved in this movement. Even though I'm living out West, but I knew that I was going to leave that small town and end up in a big city. And that's what I did. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And before I go to my next question, you mentioned that you didn't have a way home. How did you eventually find your way back home? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I hitchhiked. 


CLAYBORNE CARSON: I hesitate to say that, because the notion of a 19 year old Black kid hitchhiking, from Indianapolis to Albuquerque, New Mexico, was something that I would probably punish my kid, even today, my son if he tried something like that. But once I was there, I felt I could do anything. And fortunately, I got back. I didn't have any bad experiences. I got picked up by a number of people. Some of them went out of their way to help me on my ride. Maybe it was part of the spirit of the March. Because a lot of the people who picked me up were White, some Black. And it was-- 

Actually, right now, I kind of wish that I had a cell phone then. I could have taken pictures of them or done an interview with them and find out why are they picking up this kid on the road. But also, I should say that people hitchhiked more back in those days. But definitely-- when I think about it, it was not something I would ever do again. 


CLAYBORNE CARSON: Now, I know the dangers. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yeah, I'm glad that you made it home safe and sound after that. An incredible experience, I can't imagine. And then we just have a couple more questions. Just wanted to continue with Bayard Rustin's life. What was his career like after? We have the March. We have the Civil Rights Act passed. What did he get involved with Afterwards? Was he more-- turned his attentions to the gay rights movement? What was his life like then? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I think he turned his life more to the labor movement. I didn't know too much. I tried to interview him, when I became a historian, and found that he was hard to track down. So when I was traveling across the country, I just came to his office. I think it was-- I seem to remember it was in Philadelphia at that time. 

But in any case, this was during the 1970s, I think. And they said, well, he's busy today. I said, look, I'm driving across this country. And I've traveled thousands of miles. I'm not going to be here forever. Can I sit outside and wait until he comes out, and maybe we can have a talk. He knew I was outside. And I sat outside for hours and was never able to have a conversation with him. 

And what I sensed is that he had become, by that time, so important, maybe I can call it self-important, that he didn't have time for this kid, young person out in the office. But it was sad, in some ways, because I think he could have added a lot to my knowledge. And what was so important that he didn't have time for that? 

But now that I know more about his life, I can kind of see, yeah, he was too important for that kid out in the office. And he probably did have more important things to do. Or at least, he thought he needed to do. But it's part of the complexity that I feel. And who knows, would it have been different if I'd been outside Martin Luther King's office trying to get an interview? 

You find that, at different times, people play different roles. And now I understand that more. I would never-- I hope that I will never be sitting in my office and have had some young person wanting an interview that I never even come out and say hello to. 

But that's my last memory of him is the fact that I didn't get the interview. And I think that that's probably not atypical of something that happens in life. You rise to the point where something that you might have done readily, earlier, becomes kind of beneath you. 

And as I said, it's interesting in the sense that I've had so many of the other kind of experiences, where some person I modeled as being really important did take the time to sit down with me and explain what was going on. And I had the pleasure of meeting so many of the people who were there that day, people like Fred Shuttlesworth, who also didn't get a chance to speak. And John Lewis became a good friend. Stokely Carmichael, I stayed in touch with him until the end of his life. All of these people became part of my life. 

MATT PORTER: I want to say, thank you, for making the time to speak to us. And as a journalist, I recognize that sometimes you have an interview that you really want to have, and sometimes it doesn't work. So my empathy and, again, my thanks that you've chosen to make some time for us. One last question we have. 

This episode is going to air a week before the Oscars. Certainly, there are going to be people who are not familiar with the civil rights movement, the March on Washington, who are going to hear Bayard Rustin's name for the first time, be introduced to the character, the person he was for the first time on national TV. Why do you think Bayard Rustin is someone that should be studied today and that we need to get to know? 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I think he played an important role in what I think was the most important movement of the 20th century. And that is that movement to bring about racial reform in the United States, everything from the 1954 Supreme Court decision, through the assassination of Martin Luther King. During that time, this country changed in such fundamental ways. And here, you have the person who is at the center of that through all of that time. 

And I think that that's remarkable that we have a chance to kind of understand someone who is fundamentally important and yet not well understood, someone who was there for so much of American history but because of the prejudices that many people have, about homosexuality and the gay life, kind of refused to see that. 

And I think that that's something-- I compare it in some ways to women, who were at the center of so many of the important changes. People, like Ella Baker, for example, who were at the center but had to play not at the front of the stage. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Supporting roles. 

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Supporting roles, yes. A wonderful word to use, the supporting players. Coretta would be another example of that, I think, because she was not only a woman, but she's the wife of a leader. People don't seem to understand that it's hard to think of Martin except with Coretta, because, one of the ways I put it is that Martin becomes political, in 1955, because women in Montgomery organize a movement. 

Coretta, when she meets Martin, she has been a delegate to a political convention. He has not voted yet. You have to kind of see things the way they actually happen. She's the older partner in this relationship. She's the one who is, in a sense, seeing something in him, that he probably doesn't even see in himself. Because she already is political. 

And so I think that that's what I think about Rustin. He allows us to understand that sometimes there are these people who play these important roles. And for reasons beyond their control, they have to play these roles by staying in the background, letting somebody else be in the foreground. And I think that that's an important lesson for all of us to learn, that there is always going to be the background players, who are, nonetheless, fundamentally important in terms of understanding how change happens. 

And we always find them. And historians love to discover them. If not for this person, who you've never heard of before, a lot of these changes would not have taken place. Well, I think that's true of Bayard Rustin.

MATT PORTER: Dr. Carson, thank you so much for helping us shed light on one of those background players. And I appreciate your time. 

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Thank you so much. 



JAMIE RICHARDSON: If you're interested in learning more about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, check out our podcast page at, for images, documents, and oral histories about the March from the JFK library's archives. 

MATT PORTER: If you have questions or story ideas, email us at, or tweet at us JFKLibrary, using the hashtag JFK35. If you liked what you heard today, please consider subscribing to our podcast or leaving us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and have a great week.