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February 5, 2024

Exploring the Civil Rights Movement via Rustin

The film, Rustin, can serve as a powerful point of introduction for teaching about American political activist Bayard Rustin and his incredible impact in the Civil Rights Movement.


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Colman Domingo was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Bayard Rustin in the film Rustin, a 2023 drama/documentary. Rustin was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and tells the story of the often overlooked civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, as he organizes the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the film does diverge at some points from history, it can serve as a powerful point of introduction for teaching about Rustin and his incredible impact in the Civil Rights Movement. Use the lesson plan below to dive into teaching about the film and the historical figure it sought to portray, Bayard Rustin.

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Lesson Plan

Grade Level: 8-12
Duration: 2-3 class periods

Lesson Objectives:

  • Students will learn about the role that Bayard Rustin, who has often been kept out of the mainstream narrative, played in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Students will learn about what went into the planning of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • Students will learn about injustices that Black individuals and members of the LGBTQIA+ community faced during this period in history.



  1. Play Rustin for students over the course of one to two class periods (the movie is one hour and 48 minutes long). Advise students to take notes.
  2. Following the movie, have students read “The Real History Behind Netflix’s ‘Rustin’ Movie” and/or the AFL-CIO’s brief bio on Bayard Rustin.
  3. Explain to students that some liberties were taken in the movie. Have them explore and take note of those historical inaccuracies while reading “Rustin Ending Explained.”

Optional Activity: For a closer look at the details of how the march was organized, have students explore the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Organizing Manual No. 1 and No. 2.

  1. Have students answer, in small groups or individually, the discussion questions found below or here, and then discuss them as a class.
    Note: You may wish to provide students with these questions prior to watching the film and reading the articles so that they can answer the questions as they go.

Discussion Questions:

Prior to the March

1. What protest were Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. planning on staging in Los Angeles in 1960? Why was the protest canceled?

2. Who was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.? How did he cause a rift between Dr. King and Rustin?

3. What religion was Rustin affiliated with? How did his faith shape his approach to activism?

4. In what noteworthy ways did Rustin influence Dr. King? What impact did Rustin have on Dr. King and his role in the Civil Rights Movement?

5. Prior to the March on Washington, what other protests did Rustin help organize?

6. What were three reasons that Rustin faced scrutiny/opposition from other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement?

7. Why was Rustin arrested in Pasadena, California, in 1953?

8. While watching the televised news story of the police hosing down Black adults and children during the Children’s Crusade in May of 1963, a white colleague commented to Rustin, “Shame on Reverend King. Sending those poor children to march the streets of Birmingham.” How does this quote reflect a misunderstanding of the fight for civil rights and a misplacement of blame when racism is so deeply embedded into ways of thinking?

9. What did Rustin mean when he said to his boss, “I can’t surrender my differences. The world won’t let me. And even if I could, I wouldn’t want to”?

The March on Washington

1. Who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963?

2. What concessions did A. Philip Randolph and Rustin have to make in order for the March on Washington to happen? What was originally planned for the march, but was later cut?

3. What were some of the different ways they employed to raise money to fund the March on Washington?

4. How many individuals attended the March on Washington? Was this a large number?

5. What can you learn from the film on how to stage a successful demonstration? What stood out to you about the organizing process?

6. Why does the film end with Rustin picking up trash after the conclusion of the March on Washington?

Diving Deeper

1. Why has Rustin often been overlooked in history?

2. Why is it significant that Rustin was “out and proud”?

3. What acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence did the movie highlight that Rustin and others faced for being part of the LGBTQIA+ community?

4. What acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence did the movie highlight that Black individuals faced?

5. What did the movie portray accurately based on Rustin’s life? Where did the movie take liberties? Why do you think these diversions from history were included in the film?

6. Who produced the Rustin film? Why do you believe they chose to produce this film?

7. What award did Rustin receive from President Obama posthumously?

Extension Activity: The Role of Women in the March

In the film, March on Washington organizer Anna Hedgeman at one point states, “I look at this program. I don’t see one woman’s name. Not Ella Baker or Diane Nash. Not Dorothy Height or Gloria Richardson. Myrlie Evers, Rosa Parks. Not, not, not, not, not.”

Later in the film, Hedgeman says during a planning meeting, “With all due respect, Mr. Randolph, a woman should introduce them. And don’t ask me for recommendations, because a number of women have informed me that they will not be participating in the march.” ... “What is unfortunate, sir, are the circumstances that led them to the decision.”

Ask students and discuss as a class: What circumstances was Hedgeman referring to?

The film does not touch on the subject of women being included in the program for the march again, and does not directly address if the issue was rectified. Have students read how this issue played out with the articles below and then discuss as a class.


“Sexism Almost Sidelined Black Women at 1963 March on Washington. How They Fought Back.

 “Where Were the Women in the March on Washington?”

Black History Lesson Plans and Resources

Within this collection, you will find a variety of resources designed to help you effectively celebrate Black history and inspire year-round discussions on the subject. From lesson plans and classroom activities to blogs and free professional development webinars, these resources are meant to support educators in bringing Black history to life in the classroom.

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Megan Ortmeyer

Megan Ortmeyer is an SML Team Member and has worked in the AFT Educational Issues Department since fall 2018. She received her M.A. in education policy studies in May 2020 from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.

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