Story at a glance

  • Bayard Rustin, a civil rights advocate and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in California for engaging in consensual same-sex relations.
  • On the anniversary of his arrest, two California state representatives are asking the governor to posthumously pardon Rustin.
  • As a black gay man in the 1900s, Rustin faced a racist and homophobic policing and justice system, advocates argue.

A day after the federal government observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, two California representatives are asking the state to posthumously pardon one of King's close confidantes, Bayard Rustin. 

On Jan. 21, 1953, Rustin was arrested for having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif., where he was visiting as part of a lecture tour on anti-colonial struggles in West Africa. He was cited for vagrancy, which the representatives say in a letter was a common charge against gay men engaging in consensual sexual behavior at the time. He served 50 days in Los Angeles County Jail before returning home to New York, but was ordered to register as a sex offender. 

"Mr. Rustin's conviction and registered sex offender status haunted him for the rest of his life, and it continues to tarnish his name, despite his death thirty-three years ago. Indeed, California's treatment of Mr. Rustin tarnishes our entire state," Senator Scott Wiener, Chair of the California LGBTQ Caucus, and Assemblymember Shirley Weber, Chair of the California Black Caucus, said in their letter

As a prominent civil rights advocate and one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was already a target. After his arrest, his colleagues and other civil rights leaders began distancing themselves from him. Storm Thurmond, the senator of South Carolina at the time, even read Rustin's arrest record into Congressional record.

"Mr. Rustin lived during a period of time in our nation's history where his identity was under constant assault," the letter says, noting that four months later President Dwight Eisenhower would sign an executive order effectively banning LGBTQ+ people from working for the federal government. 

Still, Rustin remained active in the civil rights movement and later became the head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, advocating for Black unions. At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Rustin began advocating for LGBTQ+ rights as well, testifying on behalf of New York's Gay Rights Bill in 1986. 

In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously granted him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But only California Governor Gavin Newsom can grant the pardon to clear Rustin’s name. 

Published on Jan 21, 2020