In 1953, civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California, for having consensual sex with men. He served 50 days in jail and was registered as a sex offender. Rustin went on to play a key role in the civil rights movement, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr., but his conviction remained a stain on his reputation.
“I know now that for me,” Rustin once wrote, “sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer.”
Now, nearly 70 years after his conviction, Rustin has been posthumously pardoned by California Governor Gavin Newsom, reports Jill Cowan for the New York Times. Newsom, inspired by the push to clear Rustin’s name, also announced a new clemency initiative for individuals who were “subjected to discriminatory arrest and prosecution for engaging in consensual conduct with people of the same sex.”
Rustin’s posthumous pardon is largely thanks to the efforts of Scott Wiener, chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and Shirley Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus.
“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,” says Weber in a statement. “This pardon assures his place in history and the Governor’s ongoing commitment to addressing similar convictions shows that California is finally addressing a great injustice.”
Across the United States, arrests and other legal tools were once routinely used to oppress LGBTQ people. In 1951, in fact, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched an initiative deliberately targeting “sex deviates.”
For most of the 20th century, homosexuality was illegal in California. The state started requiring convicted sex offenders to register with the police in 1947, and only began allowing individuals convicted of consensual adult sex to request removal from the sex offender registry in 1977, two years after legislation outlawing consensual sex between same-sex adults was repealed. But these measures, according to Newsom’s office, “[did] not modify the underlying conviction or constitute a pardon.”
The new clemency project will work to identify individuals who are eligible for pardon and “diligently process” pardon applications. Californians can apply on behalf of people whom they believe meet the criteria for consideration.
By the time of his arrest in 1953, Rustin was profoundly committed to non-violent resistance. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr. of the Root, he had protested racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces, served 26 months in prison for refusing to appear before the draft board during World War II, and ended up on a chain gang in North Carolina after he participated in the Journey of Reconciliation, which saw African American activists ride at the front of interstate buses in the segregated South. Rustin served as the treasurer of the Congress of Racial Equality and co-secretary of race relations for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist human rights group.
Rustin was apprehended by police after delivering a speech in Pasadena; he was discovered in a car with two other men, reportedly having sex with one of them, according to Samantha Schmidt of the Washington Post. Rustin was subsequently forced to cancel his speaking engagements and resign from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In spite of the incident, he went on to play a vital role in the civil rights movement. Rustin was a close associate of King, introducing him to Gandhi’s teachings on non-violent activism. He helped raise funds for civil rights initiatives like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a mass protest against the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, that led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision declaring the city’s segregated buses unconstitutional. Rustin was also a primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought 250,000 people to the capital to protest the injustices faced by African Americans.
But Rustin was never able to completely scrub out the tarnish of his conviction. In an effort to dissuade King from protesting at the National Democratic Convention in 1960, the African American politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to tell the press that Rustin and King were gay lovers.
“King, in one of his weaker moments, called off the march and put distance between himself and Rustin, who reluctantly resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by King,” explains the Root.
Prior to the March on Washington, Senator Strom Thurmond singled Rustin out on the chamber floor, referring to his “sex perversion.”
Rustin died in 1987 at the age of 75. In recent years, there has been an effort to rehabilitate his image. President Barack Obama posthumously honored Rustin with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013; the White House called him “an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all.” And now, his legacy is the basis for the new effort in California that promises to bring justice to other people who were persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation.
“Generations of LGBT people—including countless gay men—were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex,” says Wiener in the statement, adding that the pardon and clemency initiative represent a “huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”