Bayard Rustin, Hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Wins Presidential Medal of Freedom


Bayard Rustin, the unsung hero of the civil rights movement and an early gay rights activist, is finally getting the recognition he deserves. The White House announced that Rustin will be among four African-Americans honored this year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The others are baseball Hall of Famer Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks, civil rights activist Rev. C.T. Vivian and media magnate Oprah Winfrey.

Additionally, on Sunday, public television will re-air the award-winning Rustin biography, “Brother Outsider” at 8:00 PM ET.

Rustin was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on August 28. President Obama will be standing in the place where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, but really he will be standing in the shadows, if not the footprints of the man who did much of the work to make the event possible.

Rustin planned and organized practically every aspect of the March on Washington, from the scheduling of speaking time for the various political groups represented, to the lunches that would be served, to his personal training of volunteer off-duty police officers and firefighters that would serve as event marshals in the techniques of non-violent crowd control. Rustin was an expert in the strategy and tactics of non-violent civil disobedience and crowd control and had taught the technique to Dr. King and all of the civil rights leaders of the time.

When Obama gives his speech at the 50th anniversary ceremony, he needs to remember the contributions of a man whose biography is of particular importance to Americans who continue to fight for civil, legal and economic rights for African-Americans, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Rustin was out and proud in a way that many black gay and lesbian people are afraid of even today. In 1953, he was jailed on a moral clause for having a threesome in a parked car in Pasadena, CA. The South Carolina bigot and segregationist Strom Thurmond called him a convicted sex pervert and had his arrest record read into the official congressional minutes in an attempt to derail his efforts to organize the March on Washington. Black civil rights leaders and ministers, like famed Harlem Congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., disapproved of Rustin’s open homosexual lifestyle and pressured Dr. King to distance himself from him. Rustin, who was King’s mentor and one of his closest advisors, resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he had helped to setup, for the good of the movement.

Rustin spent his whole life selflessly fighting for the things we still fight for today – economic freedom, gay equality, and civil justice. When he receives his posthumous award he will take his place alongside many of the civil rights legends that he influenced and trained including Dr. King (1977), Andrew Young (1981), Rev. Jesse Jackson (2000) and Rep. John Lewis (2009).