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Kenneth Jacobson
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This black, gay civil rights leader defended Israel. Do you know his name?

He was a behind-the-scenes organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and an advocate for Israel in the Black community
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., center, and Bayard Rustin, leaders in the racial bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., leave the Montgomery County Courthouse on Feb. 24, 1956. The civil rights leaders were arraigned along with 87 other black activists. Thousands of supporters walked in protest against the mass indictments and arrests. (AP Photo)
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., center, and Bayard Rustin, leaders in the racial bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., leave the Montgomery County Courthouse on Feb. 24, 1956. The civil rights leaders were arraigned along with 87 other black activists. Thousands of supporters walked in protest against the mass indictments and arrests. (AP Photo)

August 26 will be the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Civil rights groups have organized a march to mark the historic march. This important gathering in Washington, DC will come at a time when many of the civil rights gains in the years following the original march are being challenged and undermined. 

For the Jewish community and its organizations, many of whom are participating in the 2023 march, it presents an opportunity to remember the importance of the 1963 event, to remember the Jewish role at that time, to recognize the great progress that has been made in the intervening years, and to acknowledge that there still is much work to be done. It also is an opportunity to strengthen relations between the Black and Jewish communities, the history of which has been both glorious and complicated. 

At the same time, it is also an opportunity for the community to remember an individual who was a behind-the-scenes organizer of the original march, who for many years did not get the credit he deserved for his role and who was a great supporter of a Jewish democratic state in Israel. 

I am referring to Bayard Rustin, an important civil rights leader whose work to advance racial justice dates all the way back to the 1940s when he worked with A. Phillip Randolph to organize an early demonstration for civil rights. 

Rustin played the key role in conceiving and coordinating the 1963 event. He was, however, generally omitted from receiving credit because, at a time when the Stonewall Riots were still six years in the future, his open homosexuality was perceived as too controversial when Black leadership was struggling to gain acceptance in broader America. 

It was only years later, when the movements for civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights had made great strides in America, that Rustin was given credit for his role. 

This recognition was a product of the changes in America that came out of the original march. So, it was only fitting that the organizer should particularly reap the benefits, however delayed, of what he had conceived. 

At the same time, Bayard Rustin was one of the great supporters of the Jewish community, which was heavily involved in the 1963 march and is likewise fully participating in this summer’s anniversary march. In 1975, a year that saw the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution at the United Nations, Rustin, who was an outspoken advocate against apartheid in South Africa, created BASIC, the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee. Also joining him in that effort were other important African American leaders, like Randolph and Roy Wilkins, the former head of the NAACP. 

This initiative was an important contribution coming from a leader in civil rights struggles and in the fight for freedom in South Africa, joining Dr. King in his support for the democratic Jewish state as part and parcel of the global struggle for freedom. It is important to recall that Dr. King was a great supporter of Israel’s fundamental right to exist and vocally opposed those who attacked and delegitimized the Jewish state. 

The organization described its mission to offset efforts at the UN by Black African nations to expel or condemn Israel. Rustin said the group would “foster a better understanding of the nature of Israeli society” and would work to “counter anti-Israel propaganda, which characterizes the Israeli people and their government as racist, fascist, imperialist, and the like.” An important mission that remains totally relevant almost 50 years later.  

Rustin met regularly with representatives of Jewish organizations to discuss his work, raise issues in Israel and in Black-Jewish relations regarding Israel. He was always available for coordination and was an outstanding spokesman for Israel in the Black community. 

In sum, this anniversary is a unique opportunity to strengthen Black-Jewish relations at a time when both anti-Black racism and antisemitism are on the rise. And it is an opportunity to remember a great civil rights leader who played an important role in supporting a Jewish democratic state in Israel, as one of the many inspiring stories that emerged from the 1963 march.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., center, and Bayard Rustin, leaders in the racial bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., leave the Montgomery County Courthouse on Feb. 24, 1956. The civil rights leaders were arraigned along with 87 other black activists. Thousands of supporters walked in protest against the mass indictments and arrests. (AP Photo)
About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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