Bayard Rustin to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom, 26 years after his death

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Bayard Rustin, an American leader in civil rights who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The White House said on Wednesday that the award will be presented on November 20—a full 26 years after Rustin’s death. Rustin’s former partner, Walter Naegle, will accept the medal on his behalf. The couple had dated for a decade before Rustin passed on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75.

On August 8, 20 days before the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March of Washington, President Obama announced that Rustin would receive the esteemed Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian award in America.

Rustin was raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His grandmother, Julia Rustin, was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACA). In 1932, Rustin enrolled at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio, where he was active in many campus organizations as well as the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. However, he left the university in 1936, before completing his final exams. 

Rustin moved to Harlem in 1937 and attended City College of New York. It was then that his activism began to take off. In 1931, he joined the effort to free the Scottsboro boys—nine young Alabama black men accused of raping two white women. He joined the Young Communist league in 1936, and also became a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

With his extensive activist experience, Rustin joined forces with the infamous Dr. King as a strategist in the 1950s. He organized the boycott of segregated busses, worked to co-form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and was instrumental in many other landmark moments in civil rights history. However, he was largely kept out of the limelight due to his sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, many people today are unaware of Rustin’s key role in civil rights. Now, Naegle is glad to know that Rustin’s efforts will be honored, and his legacy restored.

“I was grateful and I think that it puts him in a position as a recognized individual who promoted democracy and equality in the country,” said Naegle. “All the other leaders of the March of Washington received a Medal of Freedom.”

Naegle went on to say that the progress made during the civil rights movement is something that the LGBT community should emulate and strive for today.

“I think there is work that needs to be done on the grassroots level,” said Naegle. “People need to start coming out to families and educating people. Churches are an awesome place to start because some harbor a lot of anti-LGBT feelings. I think that the key to overcome prejudice is through education and one of the ways you educate people is by being yourself, being open and letting them see there is all kinds of LGBT people out there.”

Naegle was waiting on a corner for a streetlight in April of 1977 when he noticed the handsome, older Rustin.

“We began to talk to each other. I noticed that he was very tall, well dressed, and a handsome older gentleman,” said Naegle. “At the moment I met him, I didn’t know who he was—but I knew who Bayard Rustin was.”

Naegle was 27 at the time, and still in the process of coming out. Rustin, who was very open about his sexuality, was 65.

“It was a gradual thing. I didn’t make a grand announcement, but people in my family were certainly aware I wasn’t dating women in high school, and, in fact, I wasn’t dating anyone really back then,” said Naegle. “I took, what I considered, my first real boyfriend home in the early 1970s. My parents didn’t make a big deal out of it.”

Naegle says that because the couple lived in New York City, they were somewhat sheltered from interracial prejudice.

“We lived in New York City, which is not the same as small-town America,” said Naegle. “The only time we encountered any curiosity was when we [were]in South Africa together on a research project, but we weren’t walking around holding hands or showing affection. There were people in New York that knew we were a couple, but the average person wouldn’t make that assumption. They were curious about the age difference.”

As a prominent activist, Rustin was often targeted both by the public and by law enforcement. He was jailed for 60 days in 1953, and from 1944 to 46, for refusing to serve in World War II due to his commitment to practicing nonviolence. However, by the time he and Naegle began their relationship, it was the late 1970s—over a decade after the passage of civil-rights legislation.

“By the time I met him, it was past the peak years of the civil-rights period, so I wouldn’t say I had a lot of fears,” said Naegle. “I didn’t worry about him being attacked. He traveled a lot and went abroad a lot and there were times where I was concerned about his general health, but I didn’t have any big fears.”

During the 1970s, Rustin began to focus on the political side of civil rights, noting that the protest period had largely subsided. He was national chairman of the Socialist Party of America, which later became Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Rustin also served on several humanitarian missions, including aiding refugees of Communist Vietnam and Cambodia.

Because same-sex marriage was literally decades away in the 1970s and 80s, Rustin adopted Naegle shortly before his death to ensure legal protections for their relationship.

“When the efforts first started being made for marriage equality, I would say I was skeptical about it and the likelihood of it happening. But when I sat down and thought of the logic of it all, a lot of it was about educating people who weren’t aware of the vast number of laws and protections that people have when they are legally married. Unless it is recognized by the state, you are not entitled to all those protections and laws.”

Naegle continued Rustin’s legacy after his death, first by forming the Bayard Rustin Fund in 1997, and in 2003 by releasing the documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.”

Naegle says that while younger generations recognize Dr. King’s name, few know much, if anything, about the late Bayard Rustin.

“A lot of younger people have no idea of who he was or know too much about the civil-rights movement,” said Naegle. “People recognized Dr. King’s name. The important thing was Bayard was a part of a movement: It was not about one person, it was a whole team of people.”

President Obama will present a medal to Naegle on Rustin’s behalf on November 20, along with 15 other recipients. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of an Executive Order signed by President John F. Kennedy to establish the award.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” President Obama wrote in a press release. “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 fifteen other recipients: Ernie Banks, Ben Bradlee, Bill Clinton, Daniel Inouye, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Lugar, Loretta Lynn, Mario Molina, Sally Ride, Arturo Sandoval, Dean Smith, Gloria Steinem, Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, Patricia Wald, and Oprah Winfrey.

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