Bayard Rustin: An American Hero No Longer Forgotten

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin at a news briefing on the 1963 March on Washington.

When I taught a civil rights class at the University of Maryland Law School, I would do an exercise with my students. I’d write “civil rights” on the board and ask them to tell me what immediately came to mind.

Some of the most common answers were “Martin Luther King” or “Brown v. Board of Education;” or sometimes “glass ceiling” or “Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”

I can’t remember a single time that anyone ever said “Bayard Rustin.” That’s a failure of history. That’s our failure to be proper guardians of his legacy.

But that’s changing now, thanks largely to President Obama’s decision to posthumously award Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is richly deserved and long overdue.

I feel compelled, as secretary of labor, to pay tribute to him as well. My very first day on the job last month, I toured our department’s Hall of Honor to see the heroic Americans enshrined there – Frances Perkins, A. Philip Randolph, Cesar Chavez and others. But where was Bayard Rustin?

He was one of our most tenacious fighters for the rights of workers, for collective bargaining, for the role unions play in expanding economic opportunity. The 1963 March on Washington that he organized – the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” as we all know, was the full name – was conceived as a demonstration against economic injustice.  He understood as well as anyone that these two movements – civil rights and labor rights – are inextricably intertwined and their goals essentially the same.

So, I am correcting a longstanding oversight by formally inducting Bayard Rustin into the Labor Department’s Hall of Honor.

Rustin was an openly gay man during a time of fear and intolerance. There was no Human Rights Campaign. There was no Pride Month. There was no “It Gets Better” campaign featuring some of the most visible public figures in America. Nope, “it gets better” was just something you had to believe when you told it to yourself.

A lot has changed since then, thankfully. From the new hate crimes law, to the repeal of DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to the emerging popular support for marriage equality, we are making progress at breakneck speed.  As someone who has dedicated most of my career to civil rights law, I am deeply moved by this sea change and proud to have done my part.

But we can’t become complacent, on LGBT equality or any civil rights or workers’ rights issue.  As one of my mentors, Sen. Edward Kennedy, put it: civil rights is the unfinished business of America. And guess whose example will light the path as we rise to the next challenges?

We can’t understand what we’ve accomplished on civil rights without telling the story of Bayard Rustin. And now, we must write the next chapter in the American civil rights story by drawing strength and inspiration from his moral courage.


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  1. Fred A. Kahn says:

    I am retired from the U.S. Department of Labor for over twenty years. At the time I was awarded the distinguished career service award by the U.S. Secretary of Labor. I served 29 years in the Federal Government, mainly at the U.S. department of Labor as a political economist in the Employment and Training Administration,. One of the highlights of my carrer was a detail to then Hon. Abraham Weiss, the Assisant Secretary of Labor for Policyu and Planning , in his work on the White House Dometic Council committe on undocumented workers. i wrote two papers , one on the impact of undocumented worlers on the U.S> labor marker, which i found negligible and another paperon the history of the “Bracero program.{” I met Bayard Rustin when he spearheaded the organization of the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. At the time I was a teaching fellowat Howard Universitory. It is from then I was recruited to launch the Job Corps program with others in the US Office of Economic Opportunity. In l969, thatwas transferred to the uS Department of Labor. I was eventually promoted to the Office of Policy, Evaluation and Research (then OPER) of the Employment and Training Administration (ETA). I am a Holocaust survivor . When I was a vice-president of the International Club at the University of Maryland, after I had served in the U.S. Army., I received the endorsement from Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady, on my proposal which was novel then of having presidential election debates. Her endorsement and others led to the conversation which eventually led to the first debate on September 26, 1960, between the candiudates Nixon and Kennedy. Last year, I was finally recognized for being the person who altered the presidential campaigns through the debates. When I advanced the idea, it was at first called an anachronism/ I pursued nevertheless and enlisted the services of the Associated Press and uPI who spread my proposal nationwide. It became the topic of theday whereas earlier it was considered an anachronism. I still have the correspondence which in addition to thst of Mrs Roosevelt, Includes, thatof Governor Theodore MC Keldin, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson and Paul Butler, chairman of the national democrat party committe . I was also then interviwed in the Baltimore Sun, August 28, 1956. I was naturalized a U.S. Citizen while in the U,S. Army at Fort Bragg on November 24, 1953. I had immigrated to the US on March 3, 1952 from Belgium to Baltimore, Maryland. I was selected asa Woodrow Wilson National Fellow and also was appointed by Governor Ehrlich, Jr in 2005 serving three years on the Maryland task force to implement Holocaust, genocide, human rights, and tolerance education in the University System of Maryland. I have a B>A. with honors from the University of Maryland and a masters degree from the Nitze School of Advanced international Studies of The Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. Department of Labor sent me to Harvard’s JFK School of Government in l972. Nowin tertirement, I manage the worldwide listserv/group Remember_The _Holocaust which promotes tolerance education and civil rights in memory of the Holocaust victims.

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