This year marks the centennial of the birth of Bayard Rustin, one of the most significant yet ignored figures in American history.

Rustin, a native son of West Chester, was the master strategist of the pinnacle event in American protest politics—the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He was also an openly gay African American often cast into history’s shadows by his colleagues in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

The story of King and Rustin is particularly shocking.

In 1960, Rustin had arranged for King and the great labor leader A. Phillip Randolph to announce that they would lead nonviolent demonstrations on the national conventions of both parties.

But for reasons still not clear, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem, wanted to squash the march on the Democrats. So he enlisted an intermediary to phone King with a threat: Unless King called off the march, Powell would tell the media that King and Rustin were having a gay affair.

They were not; the threat was hollow.

But King was not a profile in courage when confronting potential media coverage of Rustin’s gay sexuality, and because of his deep fears of being tainted, he cut Bayard out of his inner circle of advisors.

It was an especially brutal act of prejudice because up to 1960 Rustin had engineered much of the construction of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had schooled King in Gandhian nonviolence and tactics, ghostwritten his speeches, built him his first national platform at a 1957 march in Washington, steered him to practice coalition politics with labor and liberals, and even conceived and organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

For two long years, King did not open the dustbin that he had swept Rustin into, but by 1963 he was floundering and desperate for Rustin’s tactical advice. (Bayard once said that King could not organize a couple of bees to go to a honey festival.) When King came calling again, Rustin “lit up,” according to Rachelle Horowitz, Bayard’s longtime friend and assistant.

Why would Rustin ever go back to King?

Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in Rustin’s strong ego. A deeper reason stems from the virtue of steadfast hope and the practice of forgiveness that his Quaker-influenced grandmother, Julia Rustin, had instilled in him as a young boy. Reared by the spiritually fierce Julia, Rustin grew to embrace Psalm 56 as one of his favorites: “This I know, that God is for me … What can a mere mortal do to me?”

Whatever his reasons for going back, we are deeply indebted to Rustin for his courage to return to the fire.

Because of his vision and tactical brilliance, millions of us have been able to turn to Aug. 28, 1963—that scorching hot day when King shared his dream—for inspiration and instruction for advancing our own civil and human rights.

It was Bayard Rustin who taught us how to march that day—how to use Gandhian nonviolence and direct action techniques in pursuit of equal justice under law.

Perhaps even more important, he taught us to believe in ourselves and in our ability to use “people power” to transform society and culture.

Whether or not we know it, those of us who have marched on Washington and in our various communities since then—for women’s rights, gay rights, peace, immigrants, even Glenn Beck’s conservative agenda—have closely followed Rustin as our North Star.

Thanks for lighting our path, Bayard, and Happy Birthday.

Rustin died in 1987. Michael G. Long teaches peace studies at Elizabethtown College and is the editor of “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.”