“[Bayard Rustin] wanted us to live that couple of months as if every single day might be the last day of your life.”
Norman Hill, National Program Director,
Congress of Racial Equality
Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director and Organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Within the civil rights community, Bayard Rustin was recognized as one of the most gifted and experienced organizers. A committed pacifist, he helped introduce nonviolent techniques into the movement. He participated in the first freedom rides to desegregate interstate busing in the South in 1947. He also organized several mass demonstrations in the 1940s and 1950s and served as a leading strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott. Because he was a former member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, a conscientious objector during World War II, and openly homosexual, many saw him as too controversial to play such a prominent role in the March on Washington.
The Big Six
At the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, six national civil rights leaders announce their coalition to organize a national march for jobs and freedom.
John L. Lewis, Director, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
The youngest member of the Big Six, Lewis represented SNCC and a new generation of freedom fighters. In the early 1960s, SNCC galvanized the nation with its direct action campaign—from sit-ins to freedom rides to voter registration drives in the deep South. By the time of the march, Lewis had been arrested 24 times for his activism during nonviolent protests. SNCC activists were at the forefront of many of the protests across the South, challenging both white segregationists and traditional black organizations.
Whitney Young, Executive Director, National Urban League (NUL)
Young represented one of the oldest and largest civil rights organizations—the National Urban League. Founded in 1910, the NUL worked to document urban poverty and influence public policy through social surveys on housing, education, and nutrition. Young joined the league as a social scientist in 1941. He devoted his career to studying the conditions of urban life for African Americans as a dean at Atlanta University, the state president of the Massachusetts NAACP, and as the Executive Director of the NUL.
A. Philip Randolph, President, Negro American Labor Council (NALC)
The elder statesman of the civil rights movement, Randolph was the principal visionary behind the March on Washington. At age 74, he had dedicated his life to organizing workers. Randolph brought an unwavering socialist vision to the civil rights struggle. His considerable achievements included founding the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, creating the National Negro Congress in 1936, serving as vice president of the AFL-CIO in the 1950s, and organizing the Negro American Labor Council in 1959.
James L. Farmer Jr., National Director, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
James Farmer was a founding member and director of CORE, an interracial coalition created in 1941. CORE challenged the law by breaking the law, building upon Mahatma Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolent protest and passive resistance. Staging direct action protests from sit-ins to Freedom Rides, CORE pioneered the tactics used in freedom struggles across the South by the 1960s. As an elder of the Civil Rights Movement, Farmer continued to lead by example as CORE shifted from a focus on desegregation to voter registration drives by March 1963.
Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Roy Wilkins represented the NAACP, one of the oldest and largest civil rights organizations in the country. Co-founded in 1909 by W.E.B. DuBois, the NAACP pursued the philosophy of “color blindness,” pressing for equal access to all aspects of American life. Committed to working through the court system and the legislative process, the NAACP carefully carved out spaces for African American inclusion. By 1963, the NAACP’s emphasis on working within “the system” represented a conservative alternative to the direct action of the newer organizations represented in the march’s coalition. Poignantly, W.E.B. DuBois died just one day before the march, and it was left to Wilkins to announce from the podium the passing of this great leader.
Martin Luther King Jr., President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
In 1963, Martin Luther King was the most widely known civil rights leader in the country. Schoolchildren across America had heard of King’s work with the Montgomery bus boycott and witnessed the shocking images of dogs and fire hoses turned on children in Birmingham, Alabama. As president of SCLC, King moved quickly to sites of civil rights struggle and brought leadership experience and media attention to local campaigns. King and other religious leaders founded SCLC in 1957 as a leadership council. SCLC helped coordinate the nonviolent protests occurring across the nation by working with existing civil rights groups.