Gov. Gavin Newsom Wednesday granted a posthumous pardon to black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who was convicted in Pasadena in 1953 of vagrancy while on a lecture tour and ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Rustin — a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a top adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — was arrested in Pasadena on a “morals charge” in 1953 for having sex in a parked car with another man and spent nearly two months in jail. He died in 1987.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey joined the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and the California Legislative Black Caucus in asking the governor to posthumously pardon Rustin, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama in 2013.
“Mr. Rustin was one of the most significant civil rights leaders of our time, whose great accomplishments, unfortunately, were overshadowed by a 1953 conviction in Los Angeles County for vagrancy — a crime used unjustly against gay men for participating in consensual sexual activities,” Lacey wrote in a letter Tuesday to the governor.
Rustin and “his historic contributions to the civil rights movement, however, were relegated to the background after his conviction in Pasadena while on a lecture tour,” the county’s top prosecutor wrote.
“Mr. Rustin was required, as part of his sentence, to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life. The conviction and lifetime registration requirement were humiliating for Mr. Rustin, but more devastatingly, they gave foes ammunition to attack civil rights leaders for their mere association with a gay man. In fact, U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond read Mr. Rustin’s entire criminal file into the Congressional Record in an effort to undermine the entire civil rights movement.”
Lacey added that the crimes that “targeted Rustin and other members of the LGBTQ community were wiped from the law books long ago.” She said the pardon would “redress an ugly chapter in our state’s history and ensure this dedicated and brave civil rights leader is given his rightful place in the annals of our great nation.”
A new clemency initiative — inspired by calls from several state lawmakers to pardon Rustin — allows pardons for people who were subjected to discriminatory arrest and prosecution for engaging in consensual conduct with people of the same sex, according to the governor’s office.
“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. “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.”
Under the clemency initiative, LGBTQ Californians convicted of vagrancy, loitering, sodomy or other laws used to prosecute people for having consensual adult sex will be eligible to apply for pardons. The Board of Parole Hearings investigates pardon applications and makes recommendations to the governor, who has sole constitutional authority to grant them.
In the mid-1970s, California repealed the law that criminalized consensual sex between same-sex couples. In 1997, the state Legislature passed a law that for the first time allowed those convicted under such laws to remove their names from lists of registered sex offenders.
Newsom has been an outspoken champion of LGBTQ rights since he was mayor of San Francisco and directed the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The act became a catalyst for a nationwide political battle over the issue that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of LGBTQ people to marry in 2015.