Bayard Rustin, Gay Civil Rights Leader, Is Pardoned in California

February 5, 2020

Bayard Rustin, Gay Civil Rights Leader, Is Pardoned in California - (NYTimes - Feb 5)

LOS ANGELES — The civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, whose legacy had been tarnished by a 1953 conviction under laws that targeted L.G.B.T.Q. people, was posthumously pardoned by Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Tuesday.

State lawmakers who lobbied for the pardon had called those old laws unjust tools of oppression. Governor Newsom also announced a process that would allow anyone convicted under the laws to seek clemency.

Mr. Rustin, who died in 1987 at age 75, worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for decades. He was a planner of the Montgomery bus boycott and the primary architect of the March on Washington in 1963. But other leaders distanced themselves publicly because he was gay.

The pardon overturned a 1953 criminal conviction. Mr. Rustin spent 50 days in Los Angeles County jail and was registered as a sex offender after being discovered having sex in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif.

Scott Wiener, the state senator who leads the California Legislative L.G.B.T.Q. Caucus, and Shirley Weber, the Assembly member who heads the California Legislative Black Caucus, asked the governor to pardon Mr. Rustin.

“He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures in the cause of justice,” Ms. Weber said at the time. “A pardon will ensure his legacy and his place in history unsullied by this incident.”

Not only did Mr. Newsom pardon Mr. Rustin, but he issued a broader clemency initiative aimed at clearing others who faced similar treatment.

“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish L.G.B.T.Q. people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Mr. 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.”

In 1997, the state established a process that allows some people with similar convictions to be removed from the sex offender registry. But that doesn’t affect the underlying conviction or count as a pardon. The new initiative will work to identify and pardon eligible people.

Mr. Wiener said in a statement that he applauded the swift work by Mr. Newsom: “The governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”

It took almost 70 years, Ms. Weber said in a statement, but Mr. Newsom’s move assures Mr. Rustin an uncompromised place in history.

Mr. Rustin, she said, “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,”

Walter Naegle, Mr. Rustin’s surviving partner, said last month that although Mr. Rustin never denied being gay, he focused his efforts where he believed they were most needed, which for much of his life was the civil rights movement.

“If that meant him not being in the limelight, he didn’t care so much,” Mr. Naegle said.

Still, Mr. Naegle said he believed it hurt Mr. Rustin to have made one part of his identity secondary.

In the early 1980s, though, Mr. Rustin became involved with gay rights advocacy.

“He was interested in doing the work,” Mr. Naegle said.