The White House announced on Thursday that a gay black activist who helped advance civil rights in the 1940s would posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Bayard Rustin, who promoted non-violent resistance and helped organize the 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge racial segregation, was among the 16 recipients that President Obama named on Thursday for the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” Obama said. “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation’s gratitude.”
Rustin sexual orientation was known because he was arrested in 1953 for homosexual acts, which were illegal at the time. He was spurned for being gay both by segregationists and black power militants. Later in his life, he became outspoken about gay rights. He publicly announced his views on gay rights in essays called, “The New ‘Niggers’ Are Gays” and “The Importance of Gay Rights Legislation.”
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said Obama’s choice of Rustin for the distinction highlights his important work in the civil rights movement.
“We are delighted that Bayard Rustin is receiving one of our nation’s most prestigious honors,” Carey said. “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.”
Rustin is also known for his work in convincing President Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order barring racial discrimination among defense contractors — similar to the present day effort to push President Obama to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from engaging in LGBT workplace discrimination.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, invoked Rustin’s legacy in his continued calls for the executive order — saying the directive should be named after the civil rights activist.
“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,” Almeida said. “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.”
In addition to Rustin, the White House noted the late astronaut Sally Ride was also among the 16 award recipients. The White House had previously announced that she would be an award recipient in May. Ride had a longtime same-sex partner, a fact that wasn’t widely known until after her obituary was published.