Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin Pardoned for Conviction Under Anti-Gay Laws


Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, in New York City in 1963. (Eddie Adams/AP Photo)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned civil rights leader Bayard Rustin on Tuesday for a 1953 conviction under “morals” laws that targeted LGBTQ+ people.

The pardon describes Mr. Rustin as “a visionary champion for peace, equality, and economic justice” who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was the primary architect of the 1963 March on Washington. A key strategist on nonviolence in the civil rights movement, Mr. Rustin taught nonviolent direct action to hundreds of people across the country and around the world.

President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Mr. Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, describing him as “an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all” who, as an openly gay African American man, “stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”

On January 22, 1953, the Los Angeles County Superior Court convicted Mr. Rustin of a misdemeanor vagrancy violation after he was arrested for having sex in a parked car in Pasadena, California, where he had just given a speech. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and ordered to register as a sex offender “pursuant to a charge commonly used to punish gay men for engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct,” Gov. Newsom wrote.

The conviction nearly derailed Mr. Rustin’s career—he was forced to cancel all upcoming speaking engagements and resign from his position with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, The Washington Post reported. Civil rights leaders publicly distanced themselves, and in 1960, Mr. Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

After he was appointed a key organizer of the March on Washington, segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) tried to discredit the March by attacking “Mr. March-on-Washington himself” on the Senate floor, reading his conviction into the congressional record and accusing him of “sex perversion.” His political opponents’ use of the conviction to try to undermine Mr. Rustin, his associates, and the civil rights movement, the pardon says, compounded its “inherent injustice.”

Last month, on the anniversary of Mr. Rustin’s arrest, state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and state assemblywoman Shirley Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, asked Gov. Newsom to pardon the civil rights leader, who died in 1987 at age 75. “He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures in the cause of justice,” Ms. Weber said. “A pardon will ensure his legacy and his place in history unsullied by this incident.”

“Mr. Rustin was criminalized because of stigma, bias, and ignorance,” the pardon says. “California, like much of the nation, has a disgraceful legacy of systematically discriminating against the LGBTQ community” through “social isolation and shaming, surveillance, intimidation, physical violence, and unjust arrest and prosecution.”

States across the country targeted and prosecuted LGTBQ+ people under similar “morals” charges, including vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy.

Acknowledging that Mr. Rustin’s “conviction is part of a long and reprehensible history of criminal prohibitions on the very existence of LGBTQ+ people and their intimate associations and relationships,” the governor also announced a clemency initiative with the goal of pardoning people “who, like Mr. Rustin, were subjected to discriminatory and unjust arrest and prosecution for engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct.”

“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,” Gov. Newsom said 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.”

California repealed the law that criminalized consensual sex between same-sex adults in 1975, more than a quarter century before the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional in 2003. In 1997, the state established a process for removing people convicted under these laws from the sex offender registry, but that didn’t change the underlying conviction. The executive order issued this week seeks to “rectify the discrimination and harm inflicted by the criminal justice system upon LGBTQ people for living authentic lives” and actively encourages eligible individuals to apply for pardons.