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The Man Black History Erased

By LZ Granderson CNN Contributor | 8/21/2013, 6:59 p.m.
Bayard Rustin is the most important leader of the civil rights movement you probably have never heard of.

Yes, the residue of the Jim Crow era still poisons the air like mold spores after a flood, manifesting in unjust laws such as Stop and Frisk and clusters of failing schools in poor black neighborhoods.

But after recently reading the full text of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason why we're still divided as a nation is because we haven't figured out what is keeping us apart.

Despite being a leading voice for racial equality since the 1940s, Rustin's marginalization is a direct reflection of oppression of a different sort. Thurmond used it as a weapon to attack the March on Washington. Adam Clayton Powell, a black congressman from Harlem, used it to gain power. Other black leaders, like Stokely Carmichael, used it to question his place in the movement.

You see as big and as looming and as destructive as racism has been and continues to be in society, we must remember it is only a branch.

The root of the problem, the reason why we continue to struggle with equality, is our pathological intolerance, an intolerance no collective group of people has proven to be immune to.

"I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today, and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Dr. King's dream has not been fulfilled because we began betraying the integrity of his dream the moment we started scrubbing Rustin's life out of Black History Month lessons and civil rights movies.

We betray that dream each time a black person claims offense to the notion that gay rights are civil rights, as if the black community is the only community capable of being oppressed.

We betray King's dream each time a white elected official is allowed to say things about the gay community in ways that would never be tolerated if directed at the black community.

I don't say these things because I view the history and plight of these two minority groups as being exactly the same -- they are not.

I say these things because racism and homophobia -- like anti-Semitism, sexism and xenophobia -- all have the same mother. And as long as concessions are made for one, we will never be free from the clutches of the others.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian award. It was established by President Kennedy 50 years ago. Considering the anniversary of the march, it is fitting that Rustin is among the 16 being honored with it in November.

But like King, he was more than August 28, 1963.

He was a giant.

And so while the medal is special, the best way to honor him is to talk about him, all of him, both now and in the many years to come. Bayard Rustin spent his life fighting for peace and equality and he did so unashamed of who he was. It's about time history, and the people he helped most, stop being ashamed of him.

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