Joyce Ladner feels like she was at the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington in 1963 again. The 80-year-old civil rights activist recounted the experience to TIME in November, saying that the view from the Lincoln Memorial stage of the crowd of 250,000 people was hers greatest memory. It was indescribable.
The March on Washington was the largest peaceful protest in US history up to that point. The fact that it was nonviolent (more than a thousand black police officers were present as peacekeepers without their weapons) can be attributed to its unsung architect, Bayard Rustin. Part of his story, set in the hectic months leading up to the march, is finally being told to a wider audience Rustinthe Netflix drama, streaming on November 17th.
(Left to right) Michael Potts as Cleve Robinson, Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr., Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Kevin Mambo as Whitney Young in “Rustin.” David Lee – Netflix
While the march is best known for hosting Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing “I Have a Dream Speech” – and paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – it was Rustin who made it possible by he gathered young people and built a grassroots operation in two months. But Rustin was openly gay when it was still taboo — especially among civil rights activists, who feared Rustin’s flamboyance would harm the movement.
When Roy Wilkins, then executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), replaced Rustin as leader of the march, union organizer A. Philip Randolph was named leader instead. He immediately reappointed Rustin as deputy director and reassigned him to responsibility in all but nominal matters.
In September 1963, the couple appeared on the cover of Life magazine with the heading “The Leaders: Randolph and Rustin.” The magazine called the march “an astonishingly well-executed result of leadership.” “It went smoothly,” they said, “in almost blissful calm.” But Rustin would then disappear from the history books. Colman Domingo, who plays him in the film, told Netflix Queue He thinks he briefly learned about Rustin during his first year at Temple University, but can’t remember exactly.
September 6, 1963 LIFE cover showing A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, organizers of the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, also known as the Freedom March, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.Leonard Mccombe – The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
In the summer of 1963, Rustin began organizing and opened a business, the Utopia Neighborhood Club House, in a run-down row house in Harlem. There he delegated responsibility to an army of young people.
Joyce Ladner and 86-year-old Eleanor Holmes Norton – now a US Congresswoman from Washington, DC – were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the time. Ladner was in her senior year at Tougaloo College and Norton was a student at Yale Law School. The two lived with Ladner’s sister Dorie in transportation director Rachelle Horowitz’s apartment in Chelsea.
Both are shown in Rustin, by Jules Latimer and Ayana Workman, respectively. (Ladner visited the set himself while filming the march.) They talked about what it was like to be at the march, the extensive work that went into planning it, and Rustin’s legacy.
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, Jakeem Dante Powell as Norm, Ayana Workman as Eleanor and Lilli Kay as Rachelle in “Rustin.” David Lee – Netflix
“Rustin was a real genius,” says Norton. “Indeed, the slogan was a march for Jobs and freedom, not just freedom. And he organized this march in about eight weeks. I don’t think we’ve ever had a march to pass so many laws.”
President John F. Kennedy gave a nationally televised address on civil rights in June 1963, but activists said it lacked impact. They assumed that members of the segregationist Dixiecrat Party in the South would kill any real change to Kennedy’s bill that fall.
That set the clock ticking, giving Rustin and his legion of volunteers two months to coordinate the march, which took place on August 28, 1963. It set the stage for significant changes: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
“The march was the first time that the civil rights movement was nationalized,” says Ladner. “Before that, we worked in the vineyards in the south and were pretty much cut off from most intelligence services. But the march nationalized the struggle. It gave ownership to all Americans. Everyone who was there felt like it was part of their struggle too.”
In the film, Rustin sends the Ladner sisters to wealthy areas of New York to tell their stories and raise money to bus people to the march. “I want to tell you what it was like growing up in Hattiesburg,” Joyce tells a room full of rich white women in Mississippi. “No matter how smart you were, you were told your dreams would never come true. Because of the color of your skin.”
Meanwhile, Norton is sent to a meeting of union members in Brooklyn, where she receives support. “As long as black workers are poorly housed and underpaid,” she says, “the fate of all workers will be in jeopardy.”
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, Melissa Rakiro as Yvette, Ayana Workman as Eleanor, Jordan-Amanda Hall as Charlene and Jakeem Dante Powell as Norm in Rustin. David Lee – Netflix
Together, Rustin and his team financed and organized 22,000 chartered buses, 40 Freedom Trains and six chartered flights – as well as a chartered plane carrying celebrities including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Charlton Heston, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne and Burt Lancaster. (Not to mention the 27 portable water fountains, 22 first aid stations, and 292 latrines.)
Read more: The story behind it Rustin
And Rustin achieved all of this in the face of clear discrimination and homophobia, both within and outside the movement. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP had tried to prevent him from being associated with the march. Democratic Congressman Adam Clayton Powell had previously threatened to falsely accuse Rustin of having an affair with Martin Luther King Jr. to stop her from protesting at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. And South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond called Ruston a “pervert” on national radio and revealed his arrest in 1953 for sexual activity with men.
“Bayard had strong nerves. But he was actually followed,” says Ladner. “And I don’t know many people who would have been able to stand up straight and keep working.”
“Sixty years ago, almost no one was outwardly gay,” she continues. “Everyone kept their sexuality private. But Bayard never hid his. He was who he was.”
Source : time.com