It’s nice today, on the anniversary of the March on Washington, while our friends at Longshot are in LA putting together issue #1, to find something small but inspiring that connects those dots:
Bayard Rustin’s first rule of management was to make lists of every conceivable task. If somebody thinks that something can possibly go wrong, come up with a specific solution, and put it on the list. Organizing anything — a massive march, a union picket, a training program, a newspaper — succeeds or fails because of details.
All day long, Rustin and his team crossed off completed tasks and added new tasks to the three- and four-page lists:
Briefing of Marshals
Sy does press release on cars to Negro press
Telephone for top command
Find out when office tent goes up
Wire Mahalia Jackson
Call Joe Rauh on insurance and inspection
Clarify with Washington police Rockwell’s intentions
Small national office at the Statler
I’m fascinated with Bayard Rustin, have been for years — about a year ago I finally picked up his Collected Writings, Time on Two Crosses. At the end of his life, Rustin became a forceful advocate for gay rights, and a lot of his writing from this period connects the two movements. But in everything I’ve read about Rustin, I’d never heard this story:
At the end of every workday, Rustin convened a staff meeting. Everyone was invited — and expected — to attend, from the heavies like Tom Kahn and Cleveland Robinson down to lowly interns like Peter Orris and Elliott Linzer.
Rustin let everyone else talk. Staffers reported on how many people had written requesting brochures and buttons. They reported on how many buses had been booked for Akron and Albany and New York. They raised questions about security arrangements or coordination with Walter Fauntroy’s operation in Washington.
As others talked, Rustin doodled. As he scribbled notes and crossed out completed tasks, he drew squares and triangles that looked like mazes. Peter Orris, a brainy high school student, was convinced that the doodles helped Rustin think through the relationships between the many-layered tasks. He got Rustin to autograph one of his doodles.
Sometimes, like a herald from the past, Rustin suddenly interrupted the chatter with an old spiritual, his voice sweet and high pitched:
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long ways from home,
A true believer
Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone
Way up in the heab’nly lan’
Sometimes he sang alone. But he also called out songs everyone knew. Always the teacher, he told them where the song came from, what it meant. He talked to them, for example, about the syncopation in “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” and the call-and-response patterns in “Swing Low.” He sang the old spirituals with new words targeting Bull Connor, George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Jim Clark, the most notorious symbols of segregation in the South.
As Harlem slept, the music of slaves and sharecroppers, sit-inners and picketers, gospel choirs and a capella college ensembles, filled the muggy night air.