In November, Netflix will release Rustin, a film directed by George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and starring Chris Rock, Audra McDonald, and Colman Domingo (Lincoln), who plays Rustin. Michelle and Barack Obama are among its executive producers.
NYU News spoke with Long, who has authored and edited multiple books on both Rustin and Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, about the March on Washington’s lesser-known aspects and the forces that shape our understanding of history.
Because he was openly gay and had past ties to the Young Communist League, Rustin nearly became a victim of what we might call “cancel culture” today—other civil rights leaders sought to remove him as a lead organizer of the March on Washington. How would the demonstration have been different had he been removed?
It is difficult to imagine the march without Rustin as its main organizer. He was the glue that held everything together. And had he been removed, I suspect the march would have collapsed or that it wouldn't have happened on August 28, 1963. Rustin had just eight weeks to plan the march. But Rustin could carry out this plan on such a tight deadline because he had a wealth of experience. He had already organized three marches in Washington—in 1957 to organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, which really launched Martin Luther King onto the national stage, and then in 1958 and 1959, he organized youth marches for integrated schools. And there’s another key factor here—Rustin’s staff also included two key people who had helped to organize those protests. One was Tom Kahn and the other was Rachelle Horowitz. So all three of them could draw from their nuts-and-bolts knowledge from those earlier marches to plan the 1963 march.
Both conservatives and progressives have cited MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech given that day. But, as you write, “one of the most overlooked parts of the march is its radicalism.” What was radical about it?
Our popular understanding of the march is very narrow, which our understanding of history tends to be. This overlooks elements that were radical and those that were notably less so.
Several march organizers, including Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, were democratic socialists. And these leaders believed that it wasn’t enough for the civil rights movement, as led by King, to focus only on racial desegregation—on desegregating buses and trains and restrooms and restaurants, and even schools. They believed that if the civil rights movement wanted total freedom for Black people, it had to start focusing on making massive changes to an economy that discriminated against Black people. And this meant that the movement had to start fighting for jobs with decent wages.
One of the long-forgotten parts of the march was its radical demand for a national minimum wage of no less than $2 per hour. Now, let me tell you how radical that was. Accounting for inflation, that translates to more than $19 per hour in today’s market. That is at least $4 more than the “Fight for $15” campaign and it’s at least $2 more than Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders’s recent call for $17 per hour.
In addition, in his speech that day, Randolph made the case for transforming our capitalist economy into a socialist one that meets the basic needs of all people. Randolph wasn’t a great orator by any stretch of the imagination, but the content of his speech was really radical. He called for an economy that was not built on a profit motive. He called for an economy that did not extoll private property over other values. In some ways, his speech packed more of a punch than any other speech that day, perhaps except for the one given by John Lewis, who was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the time. In his passionate speech, Lewis called for a civil rights bill that would ensure economic equality between domestic workers, who earned something like $5 a week at the time, and the wealthy families that they worked for. Now, that type of equality would have required a socialist revolution. These are some of the forgotten and radical parts of the March on Washington.