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Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin honored
02:35 - Source: CNN AP

Story highlights

Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian participated in the Freedom Rides

Bayard Rustin was one of the masterminds behind the March on Washington

Both were among 16 honored Wednesday with the Medal of Freedom

CNN  — 

Today Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian and Bayard Rustin were among 16 people honored with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Household names former President Bill Clinton and media icon Oprah Winfrey received the honor, but odds are you probably aren’t as familiar with their fellow honorees. Vivian is a civil rights leader who participated in the freedom rides, and Rustin was considered to be one of the masterminds behind the March on Washington. Here are seven things you don’t know about these two unsung civil rights pioneers, but should.

Civil Rights movement: No ammo necessary

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was just getting the Montgomery bus boycotts off the ground he “had not personally embraced nonviolence” according to the The Bayard Rustin Documentary Film Project. “In fact, there were guns inside King’s house and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence, teaching them Gandhian nonviolent direct protest.”

Violent encounters of the Southern kind

In 1965, when he was the national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, C.T. Vivian led a group of people to register to vote in Selma, Alabama. As the county Sheriff Jim Clark blocked the group, Vivian said in his fiery tone, “We will register to vote because as citizens of the United States we have the right to do it.” This did not sit well with Clark, who instead of keeping the peace, disrupted it by beating Vivian until blood dripped off his chin in plain view of rolling cameras. Images such as these galvanized support for change.

Bayard Rustin and Muhammad Ali have two things in common

Rustin and Ali both were conscientious objectors to war who resisted the draft and were sentenced to federal prison as a result. Rustin ended up serving almost three years for refusing to fight in World War II because of his Quaker beliefs. Ali is also a recipient of the Presidential Medal Of Freedom.

C.T. Vivian got you into college

When Vivian created a college readiness program during the civil rights era, he said it was a way to “take care of the kids that were kicked out of school simply because they protested racism.” Years later the U.S. Department of Education used his Vision program as a guide to create Upward Bound, which was designed to improve high school and college graduation rates for students in under-served communities.

Throw Jim Crow from the train

During the Montgomery bus boycotts, Rustin was the logistical gasoline to King’s inspirational spark that helped bring national attention to the cause. However, what many don’t know is that Rustin had practice protesting segregated transit routes. In 1948 he filed a federal civil suit against the Southern Railway Company for violating his constitutional rights the year before when its employees refused him access to the dining car because of his race.

‘It was bigger than the Klan’

In the late 1970s Vivian founded the National Anti-Klan Network, an anti-racism organization that focused on monitoring the Ku Klux Klan. Soon after it was founded, the name and direction changed because “it was bigger than the Klan,” said Vivian in a phone interview. “We called it the Center for Democratic Renewal because the whole culture had to be renewed if it truly was going to be a democratic one.” Vivian said they viewed the Center For Democratic Renewal as “the political side” of what they were doing with the SCLC, which was focused on the country’s morality struggles during the civil rights movement.

A minority within a minority

Rustin faced oppression on two fronts: as a black man in the Jim Crow era and as an openly gay man during a time when being “out” was effectively illegal. He was even arrested on a public indecency charge. His early activism as a communist was enough to raise the ire of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, but it wasn’t just before the March on Washington that the intelligence chief attempted to slow the movement’s progress by attacking Rustin, the march’s deputy director. Hoover reportedly supplied Rustin’s arrest record to segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, who used the information to publicly attack Rustin on the Senate floor.