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California lawmakers ask governor to posthumously pardon gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin

California lawmakers on Tuesday called on Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to posthumously pardon Bayard Rustin, a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. who helped organize the March on Washington, for his conviction in the 1950s under a state law frequently used to target gay men.

Rustin was arrested in 1953 on charges of “lewd vagrancy” after a police officer caught him having sex with a man in a parked car. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and forced to register as a sex offender.

“There’s a cloud hanging over him because of this unfair, discriminatory conviction, a conviction that never should have happened, a conviction that happened only because he was a gay man,” Sen. Scott Wiener (D), chairman of the state’s Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, told The Washington Post.

Weiner and California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, formally called on Newsom to pardon Rustin in a news conference Tuesday.

Newsom vowed to consider the matter in a statement, according to the Post.

“History is clear. In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression,” Newsom said in the statement. “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.”

The arrest was a major hindrance to Rustin’s activism, forcing him out of the leadership of the pacifist Fellowship for Reconciliation. As he rose in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D) pressured King to freeze him out of his inner circle due to his sexuality, and Rustin was largely pushed to the periphery of the movement before he was appointed as an organizer of the March on Washington.

The late Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) used the arrest to assail the march on the Senate floor, accusing Rustin of “sex perversion,” but movement leaders, including King, backed Rustin, according to the Post.

“They really picked the wrong guy,” Walter Naegle, who was Rustin’s partner at the time of his death in 1987, told the Post. “The thing that separated Bayard from many people was he wasn’t going to be silenced.”

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