Several days ago Louis Sharp a reporter seeking assistance on a historical item. He was trying to verify something he remembered from his past. In 1963, he was a volunteer working with Bayard Rustin, the key coordinator of the March on Washington that year. He wanted to install a plaque in the Apollo Theater where the headquarters of the march was located, but to do so he needed proof that Rustin operated from this site.
The reporter was able to find two sources to show that Rustin indeed worked out of the Apollo, but he also worked out of Friendship Baptist Church on 130th Street where Rev. Thomas Kilgore was the pastor, and where James Kilgore, of no relation, is the current pastor.
“The offices were staffed by more than a hundred volunteers and paid workers,” wrote Jervis Anderson in his biography of the great leader “Troubles I’ve Seen.”
Now that Sharp, who doesn’t recall working at the church, has his proof it’s a matter of getting the Apollo to accede to his wishes, if not, he should consider placing the plaque at the church. One of the most famous photos of Rustin at work, with a phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was taken at the church.
It was from this station that the irrepressible Rustin coordinated one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. Orchestrating the transportation alone, the hundreds of buses scheduled to descend on the nation’s capital was enough to exasperate the most inexhaustible worker.
But this was nothing for the tireless Rustin who, as A. Philip Randolph’s right hand man, was also significantly involved in the threatened March on Washington in 1941, one in which President Roosevelt surrendered to with the promise to end racial discrimination, particularly in plants so important in the manufacture of military weapons and material.
August 28, 1963, was clearly a glorious day in the life of Dr. King and Randolph. “As the thousands dispersed (there were a quarter of million in attendance) from the Lincoln Memorial, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ Rustin saw Randolph standing alone at a deserted end of the platform,” Anderson recounted. “He walked over and put an arm around the old man. ‘I could see he was tired,’ Rustin remembered. ‘I said to him, Mr. Randolph, it seems that your dream has come true. And when I looked into his eyes, tears were streaming down his cheeks. It was the one time I can recall that he could not hold back his feelings.’”
Yes, it was a grand moment for Randolph and King, but we should not ignore the vital role Rustin played in bringing this enormous affair together. And it was sad that Dr. King had earlier succumbed to pressure from Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s threat to expose Rustin’s homosexuality if his presence at the March wasn’t minimized.
Rustin may have been shoved out of the spotlight but that was never a problem for him. Though he was a fantastic speaker and performer, he was just as comfortable and competent behind the scenes, and this is something that Randolph recognized and deeply appreciated.
Thousands will be gathering again to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that great day, and as they assemble let us hope that a moment is taken to pay homage to Bayard Rustin in the same way that Louis Sharp is trying to do in his own determined way.