Bayard Rustin, iconic civil rights leader, pardoned by Gavin Newsom

Bayard Rustin was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, a brilliant tactician on nonviolent civil disobedience, and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rustin also was gay, and ten years before the historic Washington, D.C., march, he was arrested in Pasadena and convicted of “vagrancy” for violating a morality law that often was used to discriminate and criminalize LGBTQ and black communities. Rustin also had to register as a sex offender. Rustin died in 1987.

Rustin’s conviction was used against him by various leaders who wanted to push him to the back of the bus and neutralize his social justice work.

Bayard Rustin pardoned

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a posthumous pardon for Rustin. Newsom took action after the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus asked the governor to pardon Rustin.

“California, like much of the nation, has a disgraceful legacy of systematically discriminating against the LGBTQ community,” the pardon said. “This discrimination has taken many forms, including social isolation and shaming, surveillance, intimidation, physical violence,  and unjust arrest and prosecution.

“Mr. Rustin was sentenced pursuant to a charge commonly used to punish gay men for engaging in consensual, adult sexual conduct,” the pardon said. “His conviction is part of a long and reprehensible history of criminal probations on the very existence of LGBTQ people and their intimate associations and relationships.”

Bayard Rustin documentary, ‘Bayard & Me,’ tells his love story with Walter Naegle

‘Injustice of his conviction’

The pardon also said that Rustin was criminalized due to “stigma, bias, and ignorance” and “the inherent injustice of his conviction.” The pardon went on to say that Rustin’s conviction was used by his political opponents to undermine him, his associates, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblywoman Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego), who sent the pardon request to Newsom on behalf of the two Caucuses, thanked the governor for his quick action.

Clemency program

Acknowledging that the LGBTQ community has been targeted for discrimination and prosecution by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, Newsom launched a clemency initiative to correct the “egregious wrong.”

“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,” 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 states across the country, charges such as vagrancy, loitering, lewd conduct, and sodomy were used to target and prosecute LGBTQ people, and force them to register as sex offenders.

Gay men in particular faced humiliating police entrapment in public places such as bars, parks, and sidewalks.

In 1975, California repealed the law that criminalized consensual sex between same-sex adults.

In 1997, the state created a process for people convicted of these crimes to request removal from the state’s sex offender registry. But that process did not remove their underlying conviction and did not constitute a pardon, according to the governor’s office.

In Newsom’s executive order, the clemency initiative will focus on identifying eligible candidates for pardons and will accept applications on behalf of people who meet the criteria for consideration, the governor’s office said.

It’s unclear how many people might be eligible, and if anyone incarcerated would meet the clemency criteria.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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