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California

Newsom grants posthumous pardon to civil rights leader Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin and MLK
Civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, left, with Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin was arrested on a “morals charge” in Pasadena in 1953.
(Monroe Frederick / Courtesy of the estate of Bayard Rustin)

In an effort to rectify decades of prosecutions targeting LGBTQ Californians, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced a new clemency initiative to pardon people prosecuted under discriminatory laws.

Newsom said the decision was inspired by calls from several state lawmakers to pardon black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a top adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rustin 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. On Wednesday, Newsom announced he granted Rustin, who died in 1987, a posthumous pardon.

Newsom said the clemency program will allow pardons for others who were subjected to discriminatory arrests and prosecutions that unjustly targeted LGBTQ Californians.

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“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 written 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.”

Under the clemency initiative, LGBTQ Californians convicted for 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In the mid-1970s, California repealed the law that criminalized consensual sex between same-sex couples. The state in 1997 also passed a law that for the first time allowed those convicted under such laws to remove their names from lists of registered sex offenders.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), chairman of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, praised Newsom’s decision to pardon Rustin and undo the damage inflicted for decades by discriminatory prosecutions.

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“Generations of LGBT people — including countless gay men — were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex,” Wiener said in a statement released by the governor’s office. “This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”

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. That defiant 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.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, thanked Newsom for ensuring that Rustin’s legacy in the civil rights movement was “uncompromised” by his arrest.

“Rustin 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,” Weber said in a statement.

President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

When asked last month about calls by state legislators to pardon Rustin, Newsom hinted that he had something more comprehensive in mind. Rustin’s case was emblematic of California’s need to remedy the “abuses of the past,” Newsom said.


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