It's a shame Bayard Rustin didn't live long enough to see this day.
A driving force behind the 1963 March on Washington, and a leading proponent for a 1941 march on the nation's capital that was called off only after President Franklin Roosevelt acceded to the demands of civil rights activists and ordered an end to employment discrimination in the defense industry, Rustin is about to receive the nation's highest civilian award.
He is one of 16 people President Obama will soon give the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award that was created by President Kennedy in 1963, just a few months before the FBI started wiretapping Rustin's home telephone. The reason for this surveillance? Rustin was a "former member of the Young Communist League," a group he quit decades earlier, and a close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights leader with whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had an unnatural obsession.
In a 1965 memo to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Hoover explained that the phone tap was necessary because Rustin was writing speeches for the civil rights leader "and counseling King in respect to the Vietnam situation." As far as Hoover was concerned, neither Rustin's Quaker faith, nor his strongly expressed pacifist views, could put any distance between Rustin's early dalliance with communism and his life-long work as a civil rights activist.
Rustin lived most of his life in the shadow of greatness. He was the chief strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington, but it was King whose "I Have a Dream" speech that day catapulted him into the national spotlight. Two hundred thousand people took part in the historic march.
The next year, Rustin led a one-day student boycott of public schools in New York City to protest the Board of Education's lackluster integration efforts. According to The New York Times, 464,000 schoolchildren stayed home that day - 360,000 more than the usual number of students who missed school.
In 1947, Rustin organized an interracial group of 16 men to challenge segregated seating on public transportation in the South. He was arrested and jailed in North Carolina, 14 years before the actions of another group of protesters got worldwide attention - and credit for launching the Freedom Ride Movement.
Rustin's lack of recognition, I suspect, is due in no small part to the fact that he was an openly gay, civil rights crusader at a time in our national life when many gays and lesbians were forced to live their lives in the closet. Those who ventured out were often stigmatized for their openness.
"Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity and equality for all" who "stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights," a White House statement said of Obama's decision to include Rustin among the honorees. The others are Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, country music star Loretta Lynn, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and jazz musician Arturo Sandoval.
But while other leading activists of the civil rights movement - people such as MLK, Rosa Parks, Roy Wilkins and Fannie Lou Hamer - deservedly have received a lot of attention and credit for their selfless efforts, Bayard Rustin has been little remembered.
That is, until now.
"Bayard was a political genius who, because of his sexual orientation, was forced to stay in the background of his greatest triumph," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "It is an extraordinary moment to see him recognized during this year of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington."
A more fitting tribute to Rustin I cannot imagine.