The National Black Justice Coalition, a a black gay US civil rights organization, praised President Barack Obama for posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
‘Rustin was a radical visionary–a Black gay activist for freedom and peace during a time when the conditions of both of these identities were perilous,’ Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, the group’s executive director and CEO, said in a statement.
‘The fact that he lived at the intersection of these identities, while fighting for the freedoms of all oppressed people, is even more revolutionary.’
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in the US.
Born in 1912 Rustin was an early proponent of nonviolent direct action, using it to fight racial injustice in the 1940s.
Between 1943 to 1947, the pacifist was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military.
In 1955, when the young preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin joined him and was essential in helping King turn into a national leader.
Rustin’s finest moment was the March on Washington. While King’s I Have a Dream speech is seen as the highlight of that historic day, the rally came about because of Rustin’s organizational skills. However, because he refused to hide his sexuality, he took a back seat and pushed others to lead.
‘Rustin was as unapologetically Black as he was gay, and by his very presence challenged the evils of homophobia and racism throughout his life. His legacy leaves a salient lesson for us on the power of living authentically,’ Lettman-Hicks said.
Rustin continued working for human rights causes up to his 1987 death.
At the end of this month NBJC, along with other organizations, is sponsoring a lecture on Rustin in Washington, DC. The 23 August event focuses on the civil rights icon and his role in the 1960s.
Lesbian astronaut Sally Ride will also be honored with the Medal of Freedom. The first American woman to enter space died in 2012.