New civil rights generation recognizes Bayard Rustin
As the face of the March on Washington and its most prominent voice, Martin Luther King Jr. is well known 50 years later as one of the crusaders of the civil rights movement.
A name not as widely recognized, however, is that of Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the march, King's mentor and an openly gay, African American civil rights advocate.
Through the use of nonviolent protest methods borrowed from Gandhi, Rustin, who died in 1987, set his sights on activism and achieving equality, all while refusing to be silent about his own identity as a gay man in an era when homosexuality was highly stigmatized.
Rustin also helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and though his contributions to the civil rights movement may not be taught in elementary school history lessons, fervent admirers continue to carry on his legacy and commemorate his work for civil rights.
The National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African Americans, has launched a commemoration project around Rustin that will coincide with the events in Washington marking the Aug. 28 anniversary of the march. The commemoration will include a viewing of the 2003 documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington on Aug. 26.
"We are advocating the preservation of his legacy by removing the barriers that didn't allow society to get to know all of Bayard Rustin," because of prejudice against openly gay individuals, said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, NBJC executive director. "His legacy deserves its due."
The NBJC, along with the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the American Federation of Teachers, began a change.org petition this summer urging President Barack Obama to award Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Aug. 8, the White House announced that Rustin would be among medal recipients at a ceremony later this year.
By promoting awareness of Rustin's contributions to the civil rights movement, Lettman-Hicks said the NBJC hopes to provide a role model for black LGBT youth.
"It's about the next generation," she said. "Our youth outreach is to make sure that youth look at the intersection of racial justice and LGBT equality and understand where they fit into the legacy of the March on Washington."