Remembering Bayard Rustin, the local man who organized the March on Washington 60 years ago

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Monday, August 28, 2023
Remembering the local man who organized the March on Washington
Remembering Bayard Rustin, the local man who organized the March on Washington

WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- The nation celebrated the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington on Monday, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led more than 200,000 people in a call for jobs and freedom.

But it's an event that many historians acknowledge may not have happened without a man from West Chester, Pennsylvania: Bayard Rustin.

A high school in the West Chester Area School District bears his name, but not everyone knows the history behind its namesake.

"Our students didn't know who Bayard Rustin was," said reading specialist Caitlin McFadden. "They're not the only ones who hadn't learned the legacy of Bayard Rustin."

He was largely unmentioned for decades, despite organizing the March on Washington.

"Bayard Rustin was instrumental in making that entire event happen," said librarian Caitlin Boyle.

Rustin was the force, but not the face, of the march. He was pushed to the shadows because he was a gay Black man.

"His gay background really created an issue for the movement," said social studies teacher Chris Reyna.

The school is determined not to let history repeat itself.

"Bayard Rustin was a wonderful person and he did a lot of wonderful things for us as a country," Boyle said.

They're giving the West Chester native his due, and developing a curriculum that includes lessons on his life.

"Part of the curriculum is looking at stories that are not told," said McFadden. "Bayard Rustin's story has not been told."

"All of our freshmen go through a research unit about Bayard Rustin. Some of the resources come directly from Rustin's family and his partner," Boyle said. "We have some photographs that came from his family as well as the program when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom."

The hope is that students are inspired by Rustin's story.

"And it's huge for white students to learn, for straight students to learn, the work that gay people have to do to be seen as equal," said Reyna.

They learn about the work advocates had to put in to have the school named after Rustin.

"There was a very vocal part of the community that didn't want the school to be named after Bayard Rustin," said McFadden.

They're making sure students know not just a name, but the legacy.

"So when they say, 'I attend Bayard Rustin High School,' they know what that means," Boyle said. "And they know the power of that name."