On August 28th, 1963, one of the most iconic and transformative events of the civil rights movement took place, the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.’ One of the largest demonstrations ever staged in our nation’s capitol, it featured Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, and is credited with helping to spur the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Not surprisingly, given the Village’s deep connection to the transformative social movements of the 20th century, there are many important links between the Great March on Washington, as it was also sometimes called, and Greenwich Village.
Perhaps most obviously, several of the musicians who were invited to perform at the March came out of the Greenwich Village folk scene, and many of them lived in the Village at the time.
These included Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Odetta. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” and together with Dylan, sang “When the Ship Comes In.” Peter, Paul and Mary sang “If I Had A Hammer” and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” while Odetta sang “O Freedom.”
Perhaps less immediately apparent, the chief organizer of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, also had deep Greenwich Village connections.
As described in a previous Off the Grid post, Rustin was deeply involved with Cafe Society, a somewhat ironically named establishment located in the West Village’s Sheridan Square that is credited as being the first racially integrated nightclub in the United States. While many prominent names and performers were connected to Cafe Society, such as Count Bassie, Art Blakely, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker, it was not in fact ‘high society’ that this nightclub aspired to attract, but an egalitarian, colorblind constituency with a decidedly left-wing political agenda.
Rustin not only performed there (he was an accomplished vocalist) but was deeply involved with many of the performers and activists for whom Cafe Society was somewhat of a second home. It was here that Rustin made many of the connections that would serve him throughout his decades-long career as an organizer and activist.
Rustin spent his later years living just to the north of the Village in Chelsea, in a limited-equity cooperative development built by labor unions. However, he and his partner, Walter Naegle, could frequently be seen strolling the streets of the Village together, which was where Neagle said he and Rustin spent their “happiest days.”