Bayard Rustin and the Presidential Medal of Freedom: A Perfect Fit

Guest post by Norman and Velma Hill

In August, President Obama chose civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This recognition is long overdue. While the achievements of fellow recipients are related to the expansion of liberty in its broadest sense, this high honor fits Rustin to a tee.

Beginning in the early 1940s, Rustin devoted his life and vast array of talents to the advancement of democracy and individual rights for all, at home and abroad. He was a fearless activist, an elegant writer, an astute thinker, a galvanizing speaker, a master strategist, a great organizer, and a mentor and friend.

Consider this: In 1947, Rustin helped organize the first freedom rides for the cause of racial integration. He was arrested—one among the more than 20 times he was incarcerated for his civil rights activities—and spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang for participating in those rides. He wrote an absorbing account of his experience that became part of a successful campaign to abolish the state’s chain gangs, but not before he made the chain gang he labored in more humane before he left it.

Understanding that striving for freedom was a global struggle, Rustin visited India in the 1940s to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi’s principles and his anti-colonial movement. Rustin directly applied what he learned when he went south in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott against segregated seating. There, he advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the full meaning of Gandhi’s pacifism, which barred the use of violence even in self-defense, something King came to famously and effectively embrace.

After the boycott’s triumph, Rustin convinced King to bring his civil rights struggle to the entire South. In 1957, Rustin played a major role in organizing King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of southern Black pastors pressing for civil rights.

Rustin’s extraordinary organizing abilities were in full display in 1963 when, in a few months, he organized the 250,000-person-strong March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, initiated by his mentor, the great African-American labor leader, A. Philip Randolph. Randolph was also considered the father of the modern civil rights movement. At the time, the march was the largest demonstration in American history and it helped generate the political momentum for passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The march, whose 50th anniversary was marked in August, represents a fulfillment of the Randolph/Rustin vision. While Rustin believed in nonviolence, he did not believe that meant passivity. Nonviolence was an active tool for mass movement, grassroots action through which people liberated themselves.

The Great March was based on the principle that freedom, as Rustin knew, was not given but had to be seized by the oppressed. The march was also based on the principle of majoritarianism, which Rustin supported as a democratic principle and a practical strategy for racial minorities. He knew that as an oppressed minority, Black people had to initiate their own freedom struggle and that they also had to form coalitions with others to accomplish this.

Consequently, Rustin reached out to many types of groups, including trade unions. Like Randolph, Rustin understood that Black people were exploited on the basis of class as well as race and, therefore, the best ally of Black people was organized labor, which, in fact, sent tens of thousands of its members to the ’63 march.

Not surprisingly, Rustin, an openly gay man, viewed discrimination against any minority groups as a threat to democracy, and he opposed Black racism just as he did the White variety. He also considered a “Black people, go-it-alone” strategy doomed to fail. He never stopped trumpeting freedom for all people, which prompted Rustin to stand against colonialism in India and Africa. And, unlike many radicals of his time, he condemned all dictatorships, those of the political left as well as of the right. This principled position moved him to defy those who made fashionable heroes of Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro.

As close friends of Rustin who worked side-by-side with him in the planning of the 1963 March on Washington, we are grateful to President Obama. He could not have chosen a more perfect recipient than Bayard Rustin for this year’s Medal of Freedom. And while Rustin died in 1987, he lives on through the many of us who knew and loved him, and the millions more who are the beneficiaries of his tireless quest for racial equality, human rights, and worldwide democracy.

[Note: On November 23rd, Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Rustin’s behalf from President Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.]

Norman and Velma Hill are lifelong civil rights activists and labor leaders. Norman Hill was the staff coordinator of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, initiated by A. Philip Randolph and organized by Bayard Rustin. He is presently President Emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill is a former Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers and the former Civil Rights and International Affairs Director of the Service Employees International Union. They are also co-authors of “Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain,” a memoir scheduled for publication in 2014.