When the honorees for this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom were announced Aug. 8, the list of names was as impressive as one would expect. After all, the Medal of Freedom is the highest honor given to civilians in the U.S.
Astronaut Sally Ride, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, former President Bill Clinton, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey were all on the list to be recognized by President Barack Obama. Also among the 16 honorees was the little-known name of an African-American, gay man who brought tremendous change to the civil rights arena: Bayard Rustin.
Fearless and impactful, Rustin was a leading strategist for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. At a time when being gay was considered criminal by many (Rustin was arrested in 1953 for a homosexual act), he made no secret of his sexual orientation. He was often the target of attacks on his character by political opponents in speeches and fellow civil rights advisers in private.
Though he primarily worked behind the scenes, Rustin orchestrated many life-changing events that advanced rights for African Americans. For instance, he helped organize the first Freedom Ride and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was the chief orchestrator of the 1963 March on Washington. The latter was where King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
As someone who promoted and practiced nonviolent resistance, Rustin’s influence on King and other leaders is undeniable. In addition to living an out life, he became a public advocate for gay rights in the 1970s. Rustin once testified for a state gay rights bill in New York. And prior to his death in 1987, he wrote in an essay that “ gay people are the new barometer for social change.”
Twenty-six years later, he’s finally getting national recognition as a contributor to that change.