How the March on Washington Worked

Who Were A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin?

A. Philip Randolph (left) and Bayard Rustin testify before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee on urban development in 1966.
A. Philip Randolph (left) and Bayard Rustin testify before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee on urban development in 1966.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Many people think King organized the march. But the kudos actually belong to A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Sadly, few Americans recognize those two names. But without the pair, the march would never have become reality. Randolph gets the first applause. A long-time civil rights activist and labor leader, Randolph was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice president of the AFL-CIO. In 1941, he called for a march on Washington to protest discrimination against blacks by the defense industries, federal government and other groups that were routinely ignoring black applicants when filling positions. The prospective march began gaining widespread support, with some newspapers predicting 100,000 people would descend upon the capital.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt panicked, quickly issuing an executive order creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee, charged with ending discrimination in defense industries, federal agencies and unions. Randolph canceled the march [sources: Penrice, Stanford].

Twenty years later, with blacks continuing to face discrimination and the Civil Rights Act stalled in Congress, Randolph renewed his call for a march on Washington [source: History]. This time, the event went on as scheduled. And it was wildly successful, partly due to Randolph's vision, and partly due to the expert organizational skills of his associate and protégé, Bayard Rustin [source: Hendrix].

In some ways, Rustin was an odd pick for such a critical job. He was an openly gay, black, Quaker intellectual. He quoted poetry, walked with a cane and wore his hair in a pompadour. Eccentric? Without question -- which could have been highly polarizing in the still-conservative early 1960s. But Rustin was a brilliant organizer, which is exactly what the march needed. In just two months, Rustin did everything from coaching volunteer marshals in nonviolent crowd control techniques to creating a 12-page manual for bus captains, instructing them on issues like where to park their vehicles and locate bathrooms for passengers. He managed to divvy up the limited podium time among competing interests without angering anyone. Thanks to his incredible attention to detail, the event was well-organized, calm, dignified. In other words, an utter success [source: Hendrix].

The goals of the march included passage of civil rights legislation, elimination of school segregation, job training for the unemployed and a $2-an-hour minimum wage [source Stanford].