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Randolph & Rustin: The Visionary and Maestro of the ’63 March on Washington

Dwight Kirk | 8/26/2013, 7:31 p.m. | Updated on 8/28/2013, 3 p.m.
A. Phillip Randolph (left) and Bayard Rustin (Courtesy of loc.gov)

Last weekend, Americans from across the nation and around the world participated in the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. They also will bear witness to history again when President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, which will forever be etched in the annals of American history.

President Obama’s remarks on Wednesday, Aug. 28 – the same date King delivered his powerful 19-minute speech 50 years ago – will be the highlight of a weeklong tribute to the 250,000 marchers who came to Washington, D.C. in 1963 and captured the consciousness of America.

But the powerful, emotional and symbolic link between King and Obama – the March on Washington – would not even exist had it not been for the vision and stature of A. Philip Randolph, the renowned black labor leader who originally conceived the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Most people mistakenly believe the march was called by civil rights groups.

But it had been a dream of Randolph’s since 1941 when he organized the March on Washington Movement, which pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt into issuing an executive order banning the exclusion of black Americans from jobs in the booming defense industry.

To help Randolph turn his dream into reality during the turbulent summer of ’63, he chose Bayard Rustin, his close associate and organizer of the first Freedom March in 1947, to orchestrate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin justified Randolph’s unshakable confidence in his organizational prowess. He rose to the gargantuan task of pulling together the largest mass protest in American history (up to that time). This master organizer mobilized more than 250,000 peaceful protesters to come to Washington – in just eight weeks!

It’s only fitting, that Rustin was recently named by the president as one of the 16 recipients this year of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Rustin, who died in 1987, will join his steadfast ally, A. Philip Randolph, who received the same honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Obama said Rustin, “fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”

The buses, trains and car caravans have rolled into Washington and once again awakened the nation’s conscience and affirmed the pulse of a social media-driven 21st century movement for jobs, justice and freedom.

But the fact that the historic 1963 march was the brainchild of a legendary labor leader and the masterpiece of a brilliant organizer, deserves much wider recognition and admiration as we await a dream come true: America’s first black president – Barack Obama – speaking to the crowd and standing in the exact location where King addressed 250,000 people 50 years ago.

Dwight Kirk is president of D’flat communications and an adviser to numerous labor organizations, including the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO.