Obama Honors Bayard Rustin and Sally Ride with Medal of Freedom
Two of America’s gay heroes, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and astronaut Sally Ride, were posthumously awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama at a ceremony at the White House Wednesday.
Accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom on their behalf were Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, and Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Rustin and Ride were among 16 honorees, who included former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, to be awarded the medal first established by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago.
"As the first American woman in space, Sally didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it," Obama said of Ride. "And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering. ’Young girls need to see role models,’ she said, ’you can’t be what you can’t see.’ Today, our daughters -- including Malia and Sasha -- can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way."
Ride, who became the first American woman to travel to space in 1983, died in July 2012 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride devoted much of her life to advancing science education and the U.S. space program.
For Rustin, who died in 1987, Obama said final recognition for his role in the civil rights movement was part of a broader struggle for equality.
"For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay," Obama said. "No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love."
Rustin was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize the early "freedom rides" and played a key role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
For Naegle and those who have sought to advance Rustin’s legacy, today was a day they were never sure would come.
"There are quite a number of us who have been working over the last 26 years since Bayard died to lead to this day," Naegle told reporters after the ceremony. "Our motivation was really to get him into the history books, to get people to know who he was, and really to work to perpetuate the values he stood for and to carry on the work because the work is not finished."
Naegle said when he and Rustin were living in New York City they bucked societal norms not only as a gay couple, but as an interracial couple with a significant age difference. "When Bayard and I were together we didn’t really think about some of these things. We were just very happy," he said.