Civil Rights Icon, Convicted of Gay Sex in 1950s, Pardoned in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Renouncing laws that criminalized people for being gay, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday posthumously pardoned a prominent black civil rights leader and introduced a new clemency process for those convicted under discriminatory LGBTQ laws.

Bayard Rustin, who helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, was arrested in 1953 in the Southern California city of Pasadena for having sex with another man in a car. He served 50 days in jail and, under the laws at the time, was required to register in California as a sex offender.

Bayard Rustin speaks with young civil rights activists before a demonstration in 1964. (New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer)

While California repealed the law barring consensual acts between same-sex adults in 1975, the reform didn’t address previous convictions.

Newsom says it’s time for California to “turn the page on historic wrongs” enacted to target LGBTQ people, beginning with Rustin.

“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” said Newsom in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”

The initiative will allow Californians who were convicted for engaging in consensual sex to apply for clemency and clear their records.

Rustin’s pardon was prompted by a recent request from state lawmakers, including state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

Wiener, chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus, asked Newsom to pardon Rustin in a Jan. 21 letter. He said he was “thrilled” that the governor acted so swiftly and is expanding the clemency to others.

“These actions are consistent with the governor’s deep and longstanding support for the LGBT community. Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades,” Wiener said in a statement.

Prior to his arrest, Rustin visited Japanese Americans imprisoned in a California internment camp and later became tied to King and the civil rights movement in the 1950s. He helped integrate labor unions during the 1960s and was later involved with humanitarian missions in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The Pennsylvania native died in 1987 at the age of 75, shortly after returning from a humanitarian trip in Haiti. He was later honored by President Barack Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

The California Legislative Black Caucus, which joined the pardon request, said the act will assure Rustin’s “place in history.”

“The arc of justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the civil rights movement uncompromised by this incident,” said caucus chair Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. “Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail.”

In the official pardon, Newsom says Rustin was jailed because of “stigma, bias and ignorance.”

“With this act of executive clemency, I acknowledge the inherent injustice of this conviction, an injustice that was compounded by his political opponents’ use of the record of this case to try and undermine him, his associates and the civil rights movement,” the pardon states.

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