Bayard Rustin was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, yet he “was denied” the credit he deserved because he was gay, former President Barack Obama recently said.
Obama made the comment at a screening of the Netflix film Rustin on Nov. 10, at the inaugural HBCU First Look Film Festival — celebrating Black filmmakers and creatives.
Rustin opened the festival during a special event at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
After being introduced by former first lady Michelle Obama, the 44th president recalled his personal connection to the Civil Rights leader and said he deserved better than being snubbed by historians.
“In 2013, I had the honor of awarding Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Obama told the audience. “For those of you who may not be aware, this is the highest civilian honor that can be conferred for people who have helped to shape our country and move it to a more perfect union.”
Rustin was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington.
The Pennsylvania native rallied people from all walks of life and pressed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to take part in the march. Yet Rustin was largely forgotten by historians after his death in 1987.
“It is hard to overstate Bayard Rustin’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement,” Obama said.
“He was a pioneer of freedom riders to desegregate interstate bus travel. He went on a bus in 1942 and got arrested for not sitting in the back, 20 years before the publicized freedom rides took place. That’s how far ahead he was of his time,” he added.
Obama noted that some Americans still benefit from Rustin’s work.
“This is one of the seminal figures that changed the course of American history. Without him, I might not have been president,” he said.
“For decades, Bayard Rustin was denied his rightful place in history,” Obama continued. “The main reason was because back in the ’40s and ’50s he was openly gay.”
The critically acclaimed biopic on Rustin’s life stars Emmy Award-winning actor Colman Domingo.
The cast also includes Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Michael Potts, Lilli Kay, and Jordan-Amanda Hall, with Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald.
DGA Award and five-time Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe directed the film from a script written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black.
The Obamas are executive producers on the film through their Higher Ground productions. The movie is produced by Academy Award winner Bruce Cohen, Higher Ground’s Tonia Davis and George C. Wolfe.
Rustin begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 17. Watch the video of Obama’s speech below.