Senator Wiener and Assemblymember Weber Ask Governor Newsom to Posthumously Pardon Gay Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin

January 21, 2020

Sacramento – Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego), on behalf of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus, asked Governor Gavin Newsom to issue a posthumous pardon to Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights leader. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey supports the pardon request.


Rustin was arrested on this day – January 21st – in 1953 in Pasadena, and convicted of “vagrancy” for violating a morality offense that was often used to discriminate against and criminalize LGBTQ and Black communities and has since been repealed. Rustin was arrested for having consensual sex with two men in a parked car. After the arrest, he was convicted, served 50 days in jail, and was forced to register as a sex offender. This conviction would stay with him his whole life, until he passed away in 1987. The request for a posthumous pardon will honor Rustin’s incredible legacy of leadership in the Civil Rights movement, and his identity as a gay man. It will also remove a stain on California caused by this unjust arrest and conviction.


Rustin’s public involvement in the Civil Rights movement began when he coordinated the first Freedom Ride in 1947. He served as one of the chief organizers of the Great March on Washington in 1963, and was known by peers as a brilliant organizer and tactician who was an integral part of the March’s success. Rustin then went on to organize the successful New York City School Boycott in 1965 to protest the racial segregation still present in the New York City school system. 


He was known as one of the sharpest leaders of the Civil Rights movement, but was eventually sidelined because his sexuality was seen as a liability, and his arrest record made him a target for backlash.


In 1953, when Rustin was in Pasadena, California in Los Angeles County, he was arrested for having consensual sex with two white men in a parked car.  LGBTQ people, and particularly LGBTQ people of color, due to discrimination and longstanding criminalization, were often charged for having sex in places like public parks and cars. After such convictions, LGBTQ people were often made to register as sex offenders, which was a terrible injustice that often permanently damaged reputations, career prospects, and made them targets of violence.


Senator Wiener, chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and Assemblymember Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, are sending a letter to Governor Newsom asking him to posthumously pardon Bayard Rustin. 


“Bayard Rustin’s criminal prosecution and registration as a sex offender are part of a long, ugly history of society’s criminalization of gay men and LGBTQ people generally,” said Senator Wiener. “California owes Bayard Rustin — and the many other LGBTQ people who have been criminalized simply for being who we are — an apology. Posthumously pardoning Bayard Rustin will send a powerful signal that California is ending the criminalization of LGBTQ people and that we will take whatever steps are necessary to fully embrace the LGBTQ community and make amends for past harms.”


Assemblymember Weber said: 

"This is long overdue. Without Bayard Rustin, the most memorable milestones of the Civil Rights Era would not have taken place. No Montgomery Bus Boycott. No Selma. No March on Washington. The appalling fact that he was charged and convicted while the two white men he was with were not is evidence that he was targeted for public humiliation because of his sexuality, his race and his position in the Movement. He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures in the cause of justice. A pardon will ensure his legacy and his place in history unsullied by this incident."


“Although Bayard passed away in 1987, such a pardon would be a symbolic gesture recognizing a violation of the concept of equal justice under the law. During the 1950s, gay men were victimized by laws that were not equally applied to heterosexuals. The rampart homophobia of our society led to stigmatization of gay men, often resulting in the loss of employment, damage to familial relationships and sometimes even sucides. I give my full support for the efforts of Senator Scott Weiner, the LGBTQ and Black Causcuses in asking Governor Newsom to pardon my late partner Bayard Rustin,” said Walter Naegle, the late Bayard Rustin’s partner. 


“I’m a gay Latino man who lived through the 1950s and 60s when homosexuality was illegal and police brutality and entrapment were rappant. Bayard Rustin’s brave and heroic journey as a warrior for social justice must never be forgotten,” said San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, who is spearheading a campaign to get a commemorative stamp made in Rustin’s honor. 


“67 years ago today Bayard Rustin was arrested in large part because he was a black gay man,” said Assemblymember Todd Gloria, vice chair California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. “Times have changed and today we urge Governor Newsom to pardon Mr. Rustin, clear his good name, and allow for him to be seen for who he really was: a trailblazing civil rights activist who dedicated his life to fighting for equal rights.”


“One of the many lessons Bayard Rustin taught us was to be enraged by injustice, but not destroyed by it. During his life, Bayard was a champion for racial justice and nonviolence, but he himself was the victim of laws which specifically targeted LGBTQ people. We urge our friend Governor Newsom to act on this injustice and pardon Bayard Rustin — a man who dedicated his life to fighting for the civil rights we enjoy today,” said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur.


San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said that “Rustin’s story reminds us of the dangers of prosecuting people for who they are, who they associate with, and who they choose to love. While a posthumous pardon may be symbolic, I join in Senator Wiener and Assemblymember Weber’s call for a posthumous pardon. However symbolic it may be, a pardon will bring attention to Mr. Rustin’s life of service and the ways our criminal justice system failed him, and it proves that the arc of history bends toward justice.”