It was a patch of blue in the dark storm stalled over the divided states of America. On Feb. 5, California Gov. Gavin Newsom parted the pall and pardoned Bayard Rustin, mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Though President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom in 2013, the gay civil rights icon still had the stain of a 1953 “morals charge” arrest in Pasadena on his lifetime of achievement.
“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.”
Excerpt of the pardon certificate
Rustin’s pardon launches a new clemency initiative for people who were prosecuted in California for being gay. In 1970, after the Stonewall riots and the movement for Gay Liberation, Assemblymember Willie Brown introduced the Consenting Adult Sex Bill to repeal the sodomy law and decriminalize gay sex. Five years later, with help from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, the bill was finally passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on May 12, 1975. But those convicted of engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct remained on the Sex Offender Registry until 1997, when a new law established a process enabling individuals to request removal. However, the original criminal conviction remained.
Newsom’s announcement acknowledges the systemic persecution of LGBTQ people and offers legal reparation.
“In California and across the country, charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy have been used to unjustly target [LGBTQ] people. Law enforcement and prosecutors specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, communities and community spaces for criminal prosecution. Now, as a proudly LGBTQ-allied state, California is turning the page on historic wrongs,” says the press release.
“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,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus said Jan. 21 at a news conference with Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, formally asking for a pardon.
“I’m thrilled that Governor Newsom is pardoning Bayard Rustin and that he acted so quickly and decisively in response to our request. I also applaud the Governor for broadening this work to provide other criminalized LGBT people with a path to clear their records of wrongful convictions on homophobic charges. These actions are consistent with the Governor’s deep and longstanding support for the LGBT community,” Wiener said in a statement. “Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. 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.”
“On behalf of the Black Caucus, I want to thank the Governor for granting this posthumous pardon. The Arc of Justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the Civil Rights movement uncompromised by this incident. 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,” said Weber. “This pardon assures his place in history and the Governor’s ongoing commitment to addressing similar convictions shows that California is finally addressing a great injustice.”
“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. 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, said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur. “Today, Governor Newsom, and indeed the entire Golden State, did the right thing.”
That the pardon comes at the beginning of Black History Month is notable. On the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote on The Root: “I ask that if you teach your children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.”
“For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay,” said President Obama, presenting Rustin’s medal to his longtime partner, Walter Naegle on Aug. 8, 2013. “No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”
Born in 1912, Rustin learned about racism early on learned from his a Quaker grandmother in his West Chester, Pennsylvania hometown. She was also a member of the NAACP and intellectual civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were house guests.
In high school, Rustin challenged the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws by defying the rules to sit in the segregated balcony of a movie theater — for which he was arrested, as he recalled in the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.
“I once went into the little restaurant next to the Warner Theatre, and—can you believe it?—there was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion in which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood. I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent-minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out, because they took up a collection.”
Rustin knew he was gay in high school, he told Washington Blade reporter Peg Byron on Feb. 5, 1986. But he remained closeted until 1947 after an encounter with a child on a bus trip in the South:
“One of the reasons that I decided that I should no longer remain in the closet came from an experience I had as a black. One day, in 19…, way back as far as 1947, I walked into a bus in the South, all prepared to do what I had always done in the South. Take a seat in the rear.
As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the red necktie I was wearing and pulled it. Whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.”
Something happened, and I said to myself, If I go and sit quietly in the back of that bus now, that child who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, “They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.” That’s what people in the South would say.
So I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.
Now, 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. I was aiding and abetting…
Peggy Byron: Sitting in the back, yeah…
BR: … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.
But from my own experience I know how long it can take till you free yourself. Thirty-four years is a long time to free yourself.”
During those closeted years, he organized strikes in college, advocated to free the Scottsboro Boys, in 1936 joined the Young Communist League which fought segregation but left disillusioned when they dropped fighting Jim Crow to fight to get the US into World War II. Rustin then found two other pacifists – A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), who both became mentors.
By now Rustin was on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s radar. Muste hired him to handle race relations. In 1941, the three pacifist socialists proposed a march on Washinton to protest segregation in the military and employment. After a meeting with President Roosevelt in the White House, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act) banning discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. As an act of good faith in response, Randolph cancelled the march over Rustin’s objections. The military was finally desegregated in 1948 by President Truman, meaning black Americans fought racism and the Nazis and fascism, only to come home to Jim Crow.
Meanwhile, Rustin came to California to try to help Japanese Americans who were losing their property and their rights as the federal government imprisoned them in internment camps. He also foreshadowed the Freedom Rides by trying to desegregate interstate bus travel in 1942, for which he was arrested outside Nashville, beaten but never charged.
By 1948, the year after he came out, Rustin was well-known enough to be invited to India for an international pacifist conference.
“Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. ‘We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,’ he wrote after returning to the States. ‘The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn,’” Prof. Gates writes.
The incident for which Rustin was pardoned happened in 1953. By now a respected organizer, Rustin traveled around the country giving speeches. After a speech one January night in Pasadena, police officers found him having sex with two white men in a parked car. Rustin was arrested, sentenced to jail for 60 days and was forced to register as a sex offender for the “morals charge.”
The arrest severely damaged his career in a country terrified by McCarthyism. He was forced to cancel speaking engagements and resigned from his leadership position with Muste’s Fellowship for Reconciliation.
He struggled to find work, resorting to manual labor as a furniture mover, Naegle said later.
“I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer,” he wrote in a March 1953 letter.
In 1955, Rustin secretly wrote “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.“In 1956, he found his way back into the civil rights movement, traveling to Alabama to advise Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on how to organize his Montgomery Bus Boycott using Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. The two were introduced by Rustin’s friend Coretta Scott.
“King really had a very, very limited idea about nonviolence,” Julian Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “It is Bayard Rustin who really tutored him, who said, ‘This is what you have to do.’ Rustin was horrified to see these pistols in King’s home, you know, and these armed guards around King’s home, because it just went against everything he believed in about nonviolence. If it hadn’t been for Bayard Rustin, Dr. King wouldn’t have had any understanding, I don’t think, of nonviolence. And Rustin tutored him and made him into the person we know he became.”
But that arrest record and the “open secret” of his homosexuality haunted him. Rustin was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he co-founded after the powerful New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to tell the press that he and King were lovers.
“Bayard himself was very aware that given social attitudes towards homosexuality and gay men and lesbians, he couldn’t wear it on his sleeve. He couldn’t, you know, be out there with the rainbow flag. This was before gay liberation. So Bayard himself was perfectly happy to keep this in the background and to move out of the way, if that was going to be good for the movement.
What made him unhappy and what made him feel like he had been done wrong was when people disavowed him. And there was a point, in 1960, when Rustin and Mr. Randolph and Dr. King were part of organizing major demonstrations at the presidential conventions, Republicans and Democrats, and at that point Representative Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem didn’t like the fact that these radicals, someone like Bayard Rustin, was getting so much attention and moving into his sphere in the Democratic Party.
And he put out the word to Dr. King that if you don’t distance yourself from Bayard Rustin, I am going to claim that there is something going on between the two of you. And that scared Dr. King, and Bayard made the decision to resign from his position. But he also expected at that point that he would be defended. And when he wasn’t defended, it was—it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly—in the early ’60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it’s the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things.”
“That was around 1962,” Rustin told the Washington Blade via the special Making Gay History podcast. “And, naturally, I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older and had another year’s experience.”
A. Philip Randolph brought Rustin back into the fold to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom but NAACP’s Roy Wilkins saw Rustin as a liability and forced him to take a deputy position.
But then FBI Director J. Edger Hoover slipped Rustin’s arrest record to rabidly anti-gay South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond – who had secretly fathered a child with his African-America maid. Three weeks before the march, Thurmond went public, trying to destroy the unprecedented event by denouncing Rustin as a gay communist and placing his arrest record in the congressional record.
Rustin told the Washington Blade:
“Now this became very clear to me in 1963, when I was organizing the March on Washington. And Strom Thurmond stood up in the Senate of the United States and for three-quarters of an hour, attacked me as a draft dodger, which was untrue, because I was a conscientious objector and well known as being a Quaker opposed to all violence. He attacked me as a former member of the Young Communist League, which was true. I had been. He attacked me as a homosexual. Which of course I was.
PB: You were the original commie-pinko-fag of the day, I suppose.”
BR: Yeah, exactly. Now, there were 10 leaders of that march. One of the most important Jews, the most important Catholic, the most important Protestant, Walter Reuther representing the trade union movement, and six black civil rights leaders.
When he attacked me, I had absolutely no basic apprehension and for a very good reason, because I had spent a great deal of my life defending prejudice against Catholics, against trade unions, against Jews, against blacks, against Protestants, and therefore I inwardly knew that those leaders, knowing of my history, had to come to my defense. And they did. And the important thing was that they voted that only one person should speak, and that was the founder of the march, Mr. A. Philip Randolph.”
For what spans five pages in the Congressional Record, Thurmond not only submitted the arrest record but the news articles about the arrest and conviction.
“The article states that he was convicted in 1953 in Pasadena, California, of a morals charge. The words ‘morals charge’ are true. But this is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge. The conviction was sex perversion,” says Thurmond.
“The senator is not interested in me if I were a murderer, a thief, a liar or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement. He will not get away with this,” Rustin said.
King and the other Big Six backed Rustin up this time because the attacks came from one of the worst Southern white supremacists. But after the march, Rustin was quietly denied his role as the seventh in the Bix Six group of civil rights leaders who called for the march: A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Jim Farmer, Whitney Young when the chief organizer of the march was disinvited to the White House to celebrate with President John F. Kennedy.
And yet, according to an extensive CNN report commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march, it was Rustin who saved the march for the organizers – from a Kennedy take over.
“The Kennedys were almost morbidly afraid of this march. They understood there’d been nothing like it,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who helped plan the march, told CNN.
“The Kennedy administration was afraid that if there was violence on the march, it would mean that the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had just introduced, would never get passed,” said march planner Rachelle Horowitz. “When we first began planning the march, there was a concerted effort by the Kennedy administration to get it called off and to not let it take place.”
“They kept a watchful eye on the planning of the march,” said John Lewis, the 23-year-old elected to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “They stayed in touch with the (march) leadership,” which had been broadened to include four white leaders, representatives of the Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths, and civil rights advocate and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.
Reuther was recruited by the White House “to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action,” wrote Charles Euchner in his book “Nobody Turn Me Around,” about the historic march. “And so he did.”
Though JFK had come around to the idea of the march, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s office inside the Justice Department’s room 5110 “was the command center,” Jack Rosenthal, who was the department’s assistant press officer at the time, told CNN.
“There was a proposal on the table that Kennedy speak to the March on Washington,” march planner Courtland Cox told CNN. “And Bayard knew this would have been a disaster because it would’ve been taken over by (Kennedy) just because he’s president. It would’ve been Kennedy’s march.”
“So, Cox said Rustin and he excused themselves from that particular meeting and took a walk to the bathroom. Clearly flummoxed about the problem, Rustin took a sip from his back-pocket flask and came up with an idea on the fly.
“And Bayard got back into the meeting and he literally made this up,” Cox recalled. “He said that he heard … if the president spoke the Negroes were going to stone him.”
After that, the idea of Kennedy speaking at the march was never considered.”
None of the feared outbreaks of violence occurred.
“After the March on Washington was over, President Kennedy had invited us back down to the White House,” Lewis said. “He stood in the door of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us. He was like a beaming, proud father. He was so pleased. So happy that everything had gone so well.”
Kennedy told King: “And you had a dream,” added Lewis.
Rustin’s role was overshadowed – as were his remarks at the march that August 28, 1963:
“We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?”
Rustin died of a perforated appendix on August 24, 1987, survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.
One last thing, Julian Bond told Amy Goodman:
“I could not think of anybody else who at the time would have stepped forward, taken hold of this March on Washington, pull together all these hundreds of thousands of peoples, the buses, the trains. You know, I saw something just recently: They made 800,000 sandwiches. Imagine that. And it was all done at Bayard Rustin’s desire.
One thing I think we’re not hearing about Bayard Rustin is his sense of humor. He once said that Dr. King couldn’t bring vampires to a bloodbath. That was the kind of organizer Dr. King was not. But Bayard Rustin knew he was an organizer and was just wonderful at getting people to do things that they didn’t think they could do or didn’t know they wanted to do. He was just a great, great person….
I think those of us who were there in 1963 didn’t immediately realize how significant this was. As you said during the program, we didn’t see many people there early in the morning. The crowd grew and grew and grew. But even when they were all there, you had no idea how many there were. You know, you can’t look out at this mass of people and say, “This is 250,000 people.” You just have no idea who they are. And I think, for me, driving back to Atlanta later that day and then reading newspapers the next day in Atlanta and hearing what other people had to say about it, only then would we began to understand the significance of this thing—the largest gathering ever at a civil rights protest.
People came together to demand civil rights in America, and that was tremendously significant. But, as you say, if you compare these demands that Bayard read at the march with where we are today, you can see that clearly most of these things have not been achieved, and we still have a long, long way to go.”
While Rustin didn’t attend the White House meeting, he and A. Philip Randolph did make the cover of LIFE magazine.
“Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century,” says historian John D’Emilio.
That 1953 arrest record hung like an invisible chain around Rustin’s neck. Now he is really, finally free.
If you think you are eligible and would like to seek clemency, you can apply for a pardon and receive updates and information on the clemency initiative at www.gov.ca.gov/clemency