The White House announced today that the venerable Bayard Rustin -- a pioneer in the African-American and LGBT civil rights movements, confidante and advisor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington -- will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.
A press release from the White House notes that the award, which will be presented in a ceremony later this year, is given to individuals who have "made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
The press release gives the following biography for Rustin:
Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.
LGBT organizations reacted with praise. HRC:
"Bayard Rustin's contributions to the American civil rights movement remain paramount to its successes to this day," said HRC President Chad Griffin. "His role in the fight for civil rights of African-Americans is all the more admirable because he made it as a gay man, experiencing prejudice not just because of his race, but because of his sexual orientation as well."
Rustin was active in the struggle for civil rights for sixty years, from organizing early freedom rides in the 1940s, to serving as key advisor to Dr. King, to helping found the A. Philip Randolph Institute. But his advocacy was far from limited to the rights of African Americans. He worked to end apartheid in South Africa, fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews, worked to protect the property of Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and helped highlight the plight of Vietnamese "boat people." And in the 1980s, he also spoke up for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, testifying in support of anti-discrimination legislation in New York. "Bayard Rustin dedicated his life to advocating for fairness and equality and overcame prejudice to help move our nation forward," added Griffin.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:
"We are delighted that Bayard Rustin is receiving one of our nation's most prestigious honors," said Rea Carey. "As an openly gay man, he inspired millions through his leadership and courage at a time when being openly gay would likely lead to persecution, arrest, violence and even death. This award will help to inspire millions more people in the quest for freedom, justice and equality."
"It's been 50 years since the March on Washington and it's clear that the fight for jobs, equality and justice isn't over for people of color, for LGBT people and for LGBT people of color. Hard fought rights can be eroded and even deleted -- as we have seen recently with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. That's why we are marching again, August 24, like Bayard did -- and many other LGBT people with him back then -- to realize the as yet unfulfilled dream," Carey said.
Freedom to Work:
"Freedom to Work is thrilled to learn that President Obama will award one of America's most important civil rights strategists with the Presidential Medal of Freedom," said Tico Almeida, founder and President of Freedom to Work. "Among Rustin's many accomplishments, he organized a 1941 March on Washington so successful that it never even took place, and that cancelled march instead pressured a reluctant President Roosevelt to begrudgingly sign the first federal contractor executive order granting African-Americans the freedom to work without discrimination. Toward the end of his career and life, Rustin also advocated for New York City's ENDA law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. Now, 72 summers after Rustin organized a national march to focus America's attention on workplace discrimination, LGBT Americans and our straight allies are calling on President Barack Obama to immediately sign the federal contractor executive order giving LGBT Americans the freedom to work without discrimination. President Obama should sign it today in honor of Bayard Rustin. If it were up to me, we'd even name the Obama executive order after Bayard Rustin. It would be a fitting honor that would bring our nation's civil rights history full circle."