California Lawmakers Ask Gov. Newsom to Posthumously Pardon Bayard Rustin

“California’s treatment of Mr. Rustin tarnishes our entire state.”

Sixty-seven years to the day after Bayard Rustin was arrested for having sex with men in Pasadena, lawmakers in California will ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to pardon the civil rights icon for an anti-gay charge.

Rustin, the famed organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a close advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was publicly shamed by Sen. Strom Thurmond for the “morals charge” of “sex perversion” in an effort to smear civil rights marchers.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, submitted a letter to Newsom detailing that history.

As the letter notes, Rustin was arrested on January 21, 1953, in Pasadena on a morals charge for having sex with two men in a parked car. He was cited for vagrancy, ordered to serve 50 days in jail, and forced to register as a sex offender.

The incident would go on to deeply impact Rustin’s life. He was stripped of his position in the Fellowship of Recognition, an interfaith organization. Thurmond’s efforts to use him to vilify the civil rights movement made many retreat from Rustin.

“Mr. Rustin’s conviction and registered sex offender status haunted him for the rest of his life, and it continues to tarnish his name, despite his death 33 years ago,” the letter states. “Indeed, California’s treatment of Mr. Rustin tarnishes our entire state.”

Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films / Contributor

Close-up of Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin (1912 - 1987), New York, 1964. (Photo by Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Gety Images)

Wiener tells NewNowNext that a posthumous pardon would be a step toward correcting that injustice.

“It 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,” he adds.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey supports the pardon, Wiener notes.

Newsom could not immediately be reached for comment. He is, however, a famed LGBTQ ally, best known for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in as the mayor of San Francisco in 2004.

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