Gay civil rights icon Bayard Rustin will be posthumously pardoned for his 1953 "vagrancy" arrest, which was related to consensual gay sex.
In announcing the pardon, Governor Gavin Newsom announced he was advancing a clemency initiative to clear the records of others arrested for consensual same-sex activity.
"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 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."
The pardon was proposed last month by out California state Senator Scott Wiener, chair of the Senate LGBTQ caucus, and assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the Senate Black Caucus.
A close confidante to Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin was one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and played a vital role in various nonviolent movements, boycotts, and protests to end racial discrimination.
Sixty-seven years ago, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, Calif., after he was discovered having sex with two men in a parked car — just hours after giving a speech as part of a lecture tour on anti-colonial struggles in West Africa.
After serving 50 days in Los Angeles Country jail, the out organizer and public speaker was charged for vagrancy (a common charge against LGBTQ people engaging in consensual sex at the time) and forced to register as a sex offender. The conviction, as was the case for many gay and bisexual men in that period, haunted Rustin until he died in 1987.
"Civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, 'The time is always right to do what is right.' For our friend Governor Newsom, that time is today," Equality California executive director Rick Zbur said in a statement. "We are grateful to the governor for demonstrating our California values by pardoning civil rights hero Bayard Rustin — a trusted aide to Dr. King — and for creating a system for other LGBTQ+ people to seek pardon from unjust convictions. Today, Governor Newsom, and indeed the entire Golden State, did what is right."
Watch a part of Rustin's speech at the March on Washington below: