Celebrating Bayard Rustin

Coming together to honor the architect of the 1963 March on Washington

By Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks
Published on August 22, 2013, 8:32am | Comments

On behalf of the National Black Justice Coalition and the black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, I applaud President Barack Obama for giving the late Bayard Rustin the national esteem and recognition he deserves by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As one of the chief architects of the Civil Rights Movement and the brilliance behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 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.

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.

Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks

Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks

(Photo courtesy of NBJC)

In spite of all that Rustin was able to achieve, however, racism and homophobia have long clouded the narrative of Rustin's work, erasing him from our history books and stymieing the proper celebration of his contributions to our country. Thanks to the tenacity and unabashed passion of black lesbian activist Mandy Carter, who ushered us toward this moment and has selflessly given of herself to serve as NBJC's national coordinator of the Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project for the last two years, I am 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. On Saturday, Aug. 24, we will march with all the other civil rights organizations to take our rightful place in history, 50 years in the making, as a just and noble cause – the fight for full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

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 I am to see Bayard Rustin given his just due. I thank President Obama for lifting up this important piece of our nation's history, and I look forward to working with the White House and other allies, like the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), the 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.

NBJC and others present ''A Tribute to Bayard Rustin and the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington'' Monday, Aug. 26, at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW, 6 to 9 p.m. RSVP to the event via nbjc.org. Free, but donations will be accepted to fund the Bayard Rustin Leadership Fellowship.

Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks is the executive director and CEO of the D.C.-based National Black Justice Coalition, dedicated to empowering black LGBT people. Follow her on Twitter @sharonlettman, the organization @nbjconthemove, or visit nbjc.org.


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