California Governor Pardons Civil Rights Icon Bayard Rustin

And he wants every other LGBTQ person targeted by the ban on gay sex pardoned also.

Bayard Rustin is remembered as a hero of the civil rights movement for organizing the 1963 March on Washington. But for 67 years, California branded him a convict.

Today, California Governor Gavin Newsom pardoned Rustin for a 1953 morals charge stemming from the fact that he was gay. Newsom has also launched a clemency initiative to pardon other LGBTQ people convicted before 1975, when the state repealed its ban on sex between same-sex adults.

Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Bernard Lee
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (r), Bayard Rustin (left), and Rev. Bernard Lee following a meeting with the mayor of New York.

“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 to press.

In 1997, the state instituted a process to allow queer people convicted under the ban to remove themselves from sex offender registries. Those convictions, however, remained on the books.

Newsom’s announcement comes just two weeks after state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, asked Newsom to pardon Rustin.

Weiner told NewNowNext at the time that the pardon “would send a very powerful signal that our values of the state and about our ability to recognize that we’ve done some really bad things over time and we need to atone for them.”

Rustin was arrested in Pasadena nearly 70 years ago for having sex with two men in a parked car. He spent 50 days in jail and was forced to register as a sex offender. The arrest profoundly impacted his life. He lost his position in the interfaith organization Fellowship of Recognition, and the charge was used by Sen. Strom Thurmond to publicly vilify the civil rights movement.

Bayard Rustin
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Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, speaks to the crowd of marchers from the Lincoln Memorial.

Rustin died in 1987, long before he would ever see his name cleared. But Wiener called Newsom’s pardon a step forward for LGBTQ people in achieving full equality in the state.

“Generations of LGBT people–including countless gay men–were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex,” he said in a statement. “This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades.”

Newsom encouraged other LGBTQ people convicted under the old statute to seek pardons. They can do so here.

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.