Bayard Rustin, the black gay civil rights advocate who taught Dr. Martin Luther King, and who was the organizing force behind the historic March On Washington half a century ago, will be posthumously awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the White House announced yesterday.
By Nathan James
Rustin, a student of the nonviolent-protest principles of India’s liberator, Mohandas Gandhi, is generally acknowledged as a critical figure in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. “Because of his homosexuality,” historian Kenny Greer says, “Rustin has largely been hidden from the civil rights story. But without him, there is no civil rights story.”
Rustin, born in 1912, grew up to embrace social justice causes, and, “as an openly gay African-American, Rustin was standing at the intersection of several of the fights for civil rights,” said President Obama. “[Rustin] was an unyielding activist for civil rights dignity, and equality for all.”
An early Freedom Rider, Rustin “was instrumental in changing the living conditions of countless black Americans,” observed AFL-CIO official Mike Hall, who noted that Rustin’s work with Pullman union organizer A. Philip Randolph, changed the way black workers were treated by corporate America.
Although attempts were made by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to separate Dr. King from Rustin in 1964, King supported his mentor publicly, noting that his work and value to the movement far outweighed any concerns over Rustin’s sexuality.
In later life, Rustin also became an outspoken proponent of LGBT equality, always seeking to educate the public and promote social change through nonviolence. Shortly before his death in 1987, he testified before a packed New York State Assembly, in which he decried the plight of gays and lesbians. “The new ‘niggers’ are not blacks but gays,” Rustin intoned. “It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer of social change.”
Rustin also warned that social justice should be borne in mind with “the most vulnerable group, gay people,” taken into consideration.
Rustin will be awarded the Medal Of Freedom on August 28, the fiftieth anniversary of the famous March on Washington that he created and at which Dr. King gave his timeless “I Have A Dream” speech.