On Thursday, the White House announced that Bayard Rustin, the trailblazing civil rights activist, will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
The timing couldn’t be better. Rustin was a key advisor to Martin Luther King and the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — a job he seemed to have prepared for all his life. Many Americans will be celebrating that event’s 50th anniversary on August 28, and insisting that the country complete the march’s unfinished business of economic justice, full employment, voting rights, and equal opportunity.
Honoring Rustin with the Medal of Freedom tells us something about how far America has come as a nation in the past 50 years. After all, he had four strikes against him. He was a pacifist, a radical, black and gay. Controversy surrounded him all his life.
Also, he was a card-carrying communist during his youth. IIRC, he left once abuses in the USSR became obvious. Since communism was one of the charges usually leveled at civil rights activists, that made him a dangerous man to associate with. That’s why he never got the credit he deserved for organizing the March on Washington.
I think Ruskin was one who really understood the practical side of non-violent protest. There’s a story about him marching in a anti-war demonstration, carrying a sign on a pole. An angry veteran charged into the march and started punching the demonstrators. According to legend, Ruskin took his sign, tore the pole off of the poster-board … and then handed the pole to his attacker. “Here, hit me with this as well.”
The attacker was stunned and embarrassed. He wandered away. It was “turn the other cheek” taken to an extreme.
I’m very glad to see that he’s getting more of the recognition he deserved in life.