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

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, left, is pictured with Martin Luther King, Jr. in this undated photo. Rustin was the architectural genius behind King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Rustin also mentored King in nonviolent civil disobedience. Photo: Monroe Frederick/Courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin.

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.

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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.”

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‘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.

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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.

Champion for peace, equality

Rustin was a visionary champion for peace, equality, and economic justice. Apart from working on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin and King, Jr. organized the March and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Rustin, a New York native, traveled around the country and world to promote civil and human rights, and trained hundreds of people on nonviolence. While in California in 1942, he visited Japanese Americans imprisoned in the Manzanar concentration camp.

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Medal of Freedom

On August 8, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

After his arrest and conviction, Rustin’s career almost derailed.  He resigned from the pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1960, after threats from powerful Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), King temporarily pushed Rustin out of his inner circle. Rustin also resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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March on Washington

In 1963, as the March on Washington approached, renowned racist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) attacked “Mr. March-on-Washington himself” on the Senate floor, dredging up Rustin’s conviction and calling it “sex perversion.”

But Thurmond’s attempts to smear and discredit Rustin didn’t work. Rustin continued his important work for the march.

A week later, the cover of Life magazine featured a photo of Rustin, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial alongside his mentor and fellow march organizer, A. Philip Randolph.

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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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