Obama honors Bayard Rustin, Sally Ride with Medal of Freedom

Astronaut Dr. Sally Ride (left) and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

Astronaut Dr. Sally Ride (left) and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday posthumously honored LGBT and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and Dr. Sally Ride, the first known LGBT astronaut, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rustin and Ride were among 16 people that Obama venerated with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, at a White House ceremony this morning.

APBayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

In the five decades since President John F. Kennedy first created the modern version of the medal, more than 500 people have been recognized for contributions to society of all stripes.

“This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world,” Obama said in a statement.

Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987) was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, pacifism and non-violence, and gay rights. He was a leading activist of the early 1947–1955 civil-rights movement, helping to initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge with civil disobedience racial segregation on interstate busing.

Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for a homosexual act in 1953 when homosexuality was still criminalized in parts of the United States. He was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, and in the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.

Rustin’s award was accepted by Walter Naegle, his partner of ten years.

APSally Ride

Sally Ride

Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) who in 1983 became the first American woman in space, died of cancer at age 61. Her sexual orientation was not widely known until her death, at which time her obituary revealed she survived by her female partner of 27 years. She is believed to be the first known LGBT astronaut.

Obama said Ride didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, “she blasted right through it.”

“Young girls need to see role models, she said. You can’t be what you can’t see,” Obama said. “Today our daughters, including Malia and Sasha, can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way.”

Ride’s award was accepted by her life partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Also among this year’s honorees were former President Bill Clinton, who is recognized for his humanitarian work through the Clinton Foundation, which promotes global public health, economic development and environmental protection, and entertainer Oprah Winfrey, whose philanthropic efforts have been focused largely on education and creating opportunities for women and girls in the U.S. and in Africa.

Others who received the medal:

  • Daniel Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese American in Congress. Inouye received the award posthumously.
  • Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of Watergate.
  • Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.
  • Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women’s rights activist.
  • Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
  • Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
  • Loretta Lynn, country music singer.
  • Mario Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
  • Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the U.S.
  • Dean Smith, head coach of University of North Carolina’s basketball team for 36 years.
  • Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and became the court’s chief judge.
  • C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.

The president determined the list of medal recipients after reviewing an advisory board’s recommendations of individuals who have contributed to America’s cultural, security and other public interests.

This Story Filed Under