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    Bayard Rustin Owned His Power As a Black, Openly Gay Man

    ladyOn August 28, 2013, we witnessed history in the making on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was the first time ever that a sitting president, let alone the first-ever African-American president, spoke at a commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Two former U.S. presidents, President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton, were also in attendance.

    Earlier that month, on August 8, the White House released the names of the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients. This is the highest civilian honor bestowed by the president. We applaud President Barack Obama for including civil rights icon Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) on the list. As one of the chief architects of the Civil Rights Movement and the brilliance behind the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin’s indispensable contributions to the ethos of our country continue to reverberate and push us toward a more just and fair society. America is indebted to Rustin, and our nation is right to finally honor him for his stalwart courage and leadership.

    President Obama said, “The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours. 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.”

    The award presentations will take place in November at the White House. Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle, will receive the award. Walter is the Executor/Archivist of the Estate of Bayard Rustin and is the Executive Directo of the Bayard Rustin Fund.

    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. The fact that he lived at the intersection of these identities while fighting for the freedoms of all oppressed people is even more revolutionary. Rustin owned his power as a Black, openly gay man to fiercely challenge the status quo and fight on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized, while at the same time refusing to be defined by any single aspect of his identity. 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.

    However, in spite of all that Rustin was able to achieve on behalf of justice and equality, racism and homophobia have long clouded the narrative of Rustin’s work, erasing him from our history books and stymying the proper celebration of his contributions to our country. We are proud that the National Black Justice Coalition has remained dedicated to giving voice to Mr. Rustin’s history of social justice organizing and strategy. Our work at NBJC is a testament to the spirit of Bayard Rustin’s life, inspiring Black LGBT people to own their power and teaching others how Black LGBT people navigate space at the intersection of their identities.


    Rustin dedicated his life to the pursuit of human rights and justice for all in a dynamic and selfless way, and has verily earned his space in the history books. Words cannot express how elated we are to see Bayard Rustin given his just due. We again thank President Obama for lifting up this important piece of our nation’s history, and look forward to working with the White House and other allies, like the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to continue sharing the significance of Rustin’s life and work through this prestigious national honor. Our dream is that more will come to know of the late, great Bayard Rustin, and will use the lessons of his life to make the world a more just and welcoming place for all people.

    We also wish to give special thanks to the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition in San Francisco. They collaborated with our NBJC Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project this year.

    Mandy Carter co-founded the National Black Justice Coalition and is director of the organization’s 2013 Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project. Sharon Lettman-Hicks is the coalition’s executive director and CEO.