Metro Weekly

California lawmakers seek pardon for gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin

Civil rights leader was jailed and forced to register as a sex offender for a 1953 arrest for consensual sex

Bayard Rustin – Photo: Warren K. Leffler/U.S. News and World Report.

A pair of California lawmakers have asked Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to issue a posthumous pardon to Bayard Rustin, an openly gay civil rights leader who was convicted and jailed for engaging in a consensual same-sex encounter.

Rustin, who was among Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest allies, has been credited with being one of the planners of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott following the arrest of civil rights icon Rosa Parks and was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He also organized the successful 1965 New York City School Boycott, which sought to protest segregation in the city’s school system.

Yet despite his significant contributions to the Civil Rights movement — dating back to his involvement with the Journey of Reconciliation, also known as the “First Freedom Ride,” in 1947 — Rustin found himself often marginalized or sidelined even among civil rights activists, in part because of his sexual orientation, and, in part, because his arrest record made him a target for the movement’s detractors.

In 1953, Rustin, then 41 years old, was arrested for having consensual sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif. He was convicted of “vagrancy” for violating a morality offense — something typically used to punish LGBTQ people for engaging in homosexual behavior — and sentenced to 50 days in jail. Thereafter, he was forced to register as a sex offender until his death in 1987.

To remove that conviction from Rustin’s record, California State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), on behalf of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus, have asked Newsom to issue a pardon. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey also supports the pardon request.

“Bayard Rustin’s criminal prosecution and registration as a sex offender are part of a long, ugly history of society’s criminalization of gay men and LGBTQ people generally,” Wiener said in a statement. “California owes Bayard Rustin — and the many other LGBTQ people who have been criminalized simply for being who we are — an apology. Posthumously pardoning Bayard Rustin will send a powerful signal that California is ending the criminalization of LGBTQ people and that we will take whatever steps are necessary to fully embrace the LGBTQ community and make amends for past harms.”

“This is long overdue,” Weber said in a separate statement. “Without Bayard Rustin, the most memorable milestones of the Civil Rights Era would not have taken place. No Montgomery Bus Boycott. No Selma. No March on Washington. The appalling fact that he was charged and convicted, while the two white men he was with were not, is evidence that he was targeted for public humiliation because of his sexuality, his race and his position in the Movement. He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures in the cause of justice. A pardon will ensure his legacy and his place in history unsullied by this incident.”

Walter Naegle, Bayard Rustin’s partner, recognized the importance of the symbolic gesture and expressed his support for it.

“During the 1950s, gay men were victimized by laws that were not equally applied to heterosexuals,” Naegle noted. “The rampart homophobia of our society led to stigmatization of gay men, often resulting in the loss of employment, damage to familial relationships and sometimes even suicides.”

Wiener has credited San Diego LGBTQ activist and City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, who is leading a campaign to get a commemorative stamp made in Rustin’s honor, with reminding him of the civil rights pioneer’s conviction under laws that would now be considered discriminatory or illegal.

“I’m a gay Latino man who lived through the 1950s and 60s when homosexuality was illegal and police brutality and entrapment were rampant,” Murray Ramirez said in a statement. “Bayard Rustin’s brave and heroic journey as a warrior for social justice must never be forgotten.”

“Rustin’s story reminds us of the dangers of prosecuting people for who they are, who they associate with, and who they choose to love,” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said in a statement. “However symbolic it may be, a pardon will bring attention to Mr. Rustin’s life of service and the ways our criminal justice system failed him, and it proves that the arc of history bends toward justice.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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