SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Two California lawmakers are petitioning Governor Gavin Newsom to pardon pioneering Black civil rights leader and senior aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Bayard Rustin, for a conviction of a sex crime committed in Pasadena, California sixty-seven years ago on Jan. 21, 1953.
Although Rustin had been jailed numerous times as a result of his proactive involvement in civil rights protests including refusing to appear before a Selective Service physical exam and later resisting the military draft in 1944 during the Second World War, the arrest in Pasadena was to have a long-lasting negative effect on his career.
Journalist Matt Hormann detailed in a 2011 article, “Rustin had recently returned from Africa and was visiting Pasadena on a lecture tour sponsored by a Quaker organization, the Friends Service Committee. As secretary for student and general affairs with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, Rustin was thought of by many as the “American Gandhi,” for his philosophy of nonviolent resistance.”
According to Hormann’s piece in the online publication Hometown Pasadena dot com; “After completing a well-received lecture at the Pasadena Athletic Club, he was caught having sex with two men in a parked car at the corner of Raymond Avenue and Green Street.
The following day, he found himself before a Pasadena judge, who charged him with performing a “lewd and lascivious act.” Rustin pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to 60 days in the county jail.
Though many in the Fellowship of Reconciliation knew Rustin was gay, the embarrassing circumstances of arrest promptly led to his firing by the organization.”
“The arrest record trailed Rustin for many years afterward” and “severely restricted the public roles he was allowed to assume.” Historian John D’Emilio wrote in his 2003 biography Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.
Rustin recognized the negative impact of that arrest, writing a friend not long after he was released from the Los Angeles County Jail after serving his sentence and registering as a sex offender; “I know now that for me, sex must be sublimated, if I am to live with myself and in this world longer.”
In redemption of sorts, Rustin was to earn accolades for being the architect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic 1963 civil rights gathering, ‘The March On Washington,’ ten years after the arrest. In his book, D’Emilio writes how Rustin’s sexuality was used against him again and again, including by people in the movement, but there was a moment of solidarity when noted white supremacist South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond read an account of the Pasadena arrest into the Congressional Record and civil rights leaders responded by affirming their “great confidence in Bayard’s moral integrity.”
In January 2019, the LGBTQ podcast Making Gay History aired an extended interview with Rustin’s life partner Walter Naegle and as well as unaired audio from an interview with the Washington Blade in the mid-1980s. “At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him,” Rustin told the Blade during that interview.
For Rustin, asserting his identity as an African-American went hand-in-hand with identifying as a gay man in terms of civil rights and equality. “It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice,” he said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me,” he told the Blade as documented by Making Gay History.
Hormann reflected, “The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which Rustin organized remains a landmark in civil rights history.
King’s legacy, however, overshadows Rustin’s. As a PBS biography of Rustin notes, “Because of the stigma attached to homosexuality, most Americans do not know who he was or what he accomplished.”
Although he was in fact overshadowed almost completely due to his sexual orientation, California Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego), on behalf of the legislative LGBTQ Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus, sent a letter January 21, to asking Governor Gavin Newsom to issue a posthumous pardon to Rustin.
Wiener and Weber wrote to Newsom saying “Despite Mr. Rustin’s heroic contributions to the civil rights movement, he fell victim to California’s homophobic criminal justice system.”
The Governor’s office responded in a statement to San Francisco based LGBTQ publication, the Bay Area Reporter, “History is clear. In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression,” Newsom said in an emailed comment from his office. “They were used to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ individuals and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically. I thank those who are advocating for Mr. Bayard Rustin’s pardon. I will be closely considering their request and the corresponding case.”
A spokesperson for Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey confirmed Tuesday that Lacey had communicated her support of the request by Wiener and Weber.
“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 told the Los Angeles Blade in an emailed statement. “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.”
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. In his obituary published by The New York Times; “Looking back at his career, Rustin wrote: ‘The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.'”
Photo of Bayard Rustin, 1963 press conference for The March On Washington courtesy of The Library of Congress.