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A Posthumous Medal of Freedom for Bayard Rustin


April 19, 2013

The President
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President

We are writing to request that you consider granting a posthumous Medal of Freedom to the great civil and human rights advocate, Bayard Rustin. This award would be particularly fitting this year, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, since Rustin was the primary organizer of this milestone in U.S. history.

Adopting Mahatma Ghandi’s strategy of non-violent resistance, Rustin adapted it to struggles for civil and human rights here in the United States as well as in countries around the world, working tirelessly to advance human rights and dignity. While perhaps best known for his work to make the 1963 march a success, Rustin was active in the civil rights movement for decades before that. As a high school student, he protested racial segregation in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. After moving to New York City, Rustin became an invaluable assistant to the civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph. He was instrumental in organizing in early sit-ins and freedom rides, as well as protests against racial discrimination in government jobs and the military. It was Rustin who convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to use non-violent direct action in fighting for civil rights, and he was instrumental in drafting the plans that led to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Soon after the 1963 march, Rustin published an influential article entitled “From Protest to Politics”, and he founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute to involve African-Americans in the labor movement. As de jure racial barriers fell , Rustin’s emphasis became poverty and class issues. It was natural, therefore, that he supported and worked closely with democratic trade unions, whether in the U.S. or abroad.

A staunch believer in democracy, Rustin opposed undemocratic regimes whether from the right or the left. He worked with anti-colonial movements in Africa in the early 1950’s, he fought apartheid in South Africa, and he advocated for the resettlement of Indochinese refugees. Rustin fought for the freedom on Soviet Jews, and opposed Communism throughout Europe, Asia and Cuba. A defender of the democratic state of Israel, Rustin founded Black Americans in Support of Israel (BASIC).

As an openly gay man, Rustin found that his sexual orientation might harm the civil rights movement. In fact, Senator Strom Thurmond denounced him on the Senate floor in an attempt to derail the March on Washington. Rustin therefore often stayed more in the background so as not to damage the causes for which he fought. Despite this, his impact was enormous and often absolutely essential. Recognition of his unwavering commitment to democracy, freedom, economic equality and social justice through the granting of a Medal of Freedom would not only be merited but long overdue.


Stuart Appelbaum
Jewish Labor Committee