President Barack Obama will award 16 recipients with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, of which four are African American. They are media mogul Oprah Winfrey, civil rights leader Cordy Tindell Vivian, Chicago Cubs baseball legend Ernie Banks, and late adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and March On Washington organizer Bayard Rustin.
This group joins a distinguished list of past recipients such as Jackie Robinson, Sidney Poitier, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, and Dorothy Heights, among others.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest award given to civilians in the United States. The medal serves to recognize the significant cultural achievements by the award winners, spanning areas of arts, entertainment, world peace endeavors, human rights and other arenas.
Winfrey is being honored as “one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalist,” and for “philanthropic causes and expanding opportunities for young women ,” according to a White House press statement.
Rustin is being honored as an unyielding activist for civil rights. “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights,” states the White House.
Rustin advised King on the use of nonviolent resistance. He helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He was in the forefront with Ella Baker in 1957 along with King in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He participated in the Freedom Rides of the early 60s. Rustin also spearheaded the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his renowned “I Have A Dream” speech.
America is indebted to Rustin, as one of the chief architects of the Civil Rights Movement, says Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the Washington, DC-based National Black Justice Coalition, a black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization. “I applaud our President for giving the late Bayard Rustin the national esteem and recognition he deserves.”
Rustin, an openly black gay man, was an activist for freedom and peace “during a time when the conditions of both of these identities were perilous,” says Lettman-Hicks. “Rustin was as unapologetically black as he was gay, and by his very presence challenged the evils of homophobia and racism throughout his life.”
The NBJC has launched the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project and will co-host a tribute to Rustin and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington to be held on August 25. Visit NBJC.org.
The President’s announcement coincides with the historic March on Washington anniversary date, August 28. The Medal of Freedom awards will be presented at the White House later this year.
More than 500 people have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom since President John F. Kennedy established it in 1963. According to the Senate website, this will be the sixth such ceremony for President Obama.