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California governor asked to pardon late gay rights leader Bayard Rustin

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was jailed for having gay sex nearly 70 years ago.
Baynard Rustin
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin in 1970.AP file

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Legislature’s LGBTQ and black caucuses on Tuesday asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to posthumously pardon a civil rights leader who was jailed for having gay sex nearly 70 years ago.

Bayard Rustin was a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with being an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He also helped plan other nonviolent boycotts and protests to end racial discrimination.

In 1953, he was arrested on a charge of vagrancy when he was caught having sex with two men in a parked car after he gave a speech in Pasadena as part of a lecture tour on anti-colonial struggles in West Africa, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber wrote on behalf of the caucuses.

He served 50 days in Los Angeles County jail and had to register as a sex offender before returning to his home state of New York. He died in 1987.

“He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures in the cause of justice and freedom, both as a black man and as a gay man,” Weber said. “A pardon ... would ensure his legacy and his place in history is unsullied by this event.”

The Democratic governor said in a supportive statement that he will closely consider the request.

“In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression,” Newsom said. “They were used to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ individuals and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically.”

The lawmakers said Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey supports a pardon, though her office did not immediately comment.

Rustin's inner circle knew he was gay, the lawmakers said, but his arrest embarrassed his religious and political associates, particularly after U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina read Rustin’s arrest file into the Congressional Record.

He was immediately removed from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he was secretary for student and general affairs.

At the time, racial segregation was in full effect and LGBTQ people were “under a constant threat of violence and targeting,” the lawmakers said. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had just issued an executive order banning gay individuals from federal employment.

President Barack Obama honored Rustin posthumously with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were included in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez said a pardon could also help a national letter-writing campaign he is leading to have a commemorative stamp made in Rustin’s honor.

Gay sex is no longer a crime, but Rustin’s arrest and status as a registered sex offender “haunted him for the rest of his life, and it continues to tarnish his name” 33 years after his death, the lawmakers wrote in asking Newsom for the pardon as “a positive step toward reconciliation.”

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