22 August 2013

"We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers."

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington - a seminal moment in not just the civil rights movement, but modern American history. Its images and soaring oratory, seared into the American consciousness and consciences, are synonymous with the movement. King's speech that day is justifiably lauded as magisterial, the cadence of his delivery building to an emotional breaking point that changed the course of history. But there was so much more to that march; so many others who made the march "a moment."

A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, arguably the most well financed and well connected of all African American organizations active in the movement, the man who confronted and shamed FDR into addressing racism in the armed services at the height of WWII - spoke that day. Labor leaders, politicians, entertainers - all took their turn at the podium. The official program is a running list of the nation's most prominent leaders and activists. But one name is missing.

He spoke that day - introducing King by reading the demands of the marchers which were to be given to President Kennedy later that day, at a meeting to which he was not welcome. He organized the march, orchestrating buses, lunches, latrines, first aid. Served as a mediator between rival factions within the movement, ensured nothing was left to chance, literally writing a how-to manual for marchers pouring in from around the country. The March on Washington, perhaps America's defining moment of the 20th century, would not have happened without him - his skill, his passion, his intellect. But ask an average american who was responsible for for the march and they say, with certainty, Martin Luther King. Few would say Bayard Rustin. Which is a shame.

There are many reasons Rustin was pushed to the shadows - his atheism, his Communist ties, his sexuality - all inconvenient truths to the movement and the society it was attempting to transform. So Rustin remained behind the scenes, making phone calls, counting heads, coordinating delivery of Port-A-Potties - while King, Parks, Carmichal, Lewis became the faces of the movement.

As I read and researched the movement in grad school, I was immediately drawn to Rustin, humbled by his humility, inspired by his tenacity. I wonder if I would have been selfless enough to allow others to take credit for my work, to sublimate the very essence of my self for the greater goal. I like to think I would.

I also saw in Rustin a bit of a man I knew well. My father was not in Washington fifty years ago today. No, he was in Monroe, Louisiana, sweating his way to another tuition payment, bagging groceries and mowing lawns. He was idealistic - a Kennedy man through and through - ready to embrace the challenge laid out in 1961, to give to his country, to be the change he sought. He was handsome and strong, one of those liberal intellectuals the Delta spits out under the noses of the John Birchers and Klansmen. But he didn't seek the stage, the movement writ large. He chose another path - local action in an unassuming, non-threatening, charmingly rogue package. He found a kindred spirit in a feisty, petite brunette and together they would change their world, their small corner of north Louisiana, one student at a time.

They tried. But life is funny - it rarely unfolds the way you imagine. The dreams of 23 fade into mortgage payments, car notes, shoes for the children, and swing shifts at the MoPac. Regrets subsumed into a fog of Pall Malls and Benson and Hedges, paths diverging in a forest of fig trees and pines.

Today, on the anniversary of the march, I'll be thinking of my dad, the lessons his patient life-time commitment to education and equality taught me, and how he would agree that the job is unfinished; the work must continue to achieve the America he and my mother believed was possible in August, 1963. And I'll also be thinking of Bayard Rustin, the architect of those iconic moments, and remind myself to be an angelic troublemaker. It's what they both would want.