An Effort to Clear a Civil Rights Leader’s Name

An Effort to Clear a Civil Rights Leader’s Name

Credit…Associated Press

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He worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for decades as a planner of the Montgomery bus boycott and as the primary architect of the March on Washington in 1963.

He was a confidant and an adviser, a mentor who introduced Dr. King to Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance.

But Bayard Rustin’s role in the civil rights movement was largely relegated to the background. In public, Dr. King and other leaders distanced themselves.

That was because Mr. Rustin, who died in 1987 at age 75, was gay.

And on Jan. 21, 1953, he was in Pasadena for a speaking engagement when he was arrested after he was found having sex in a parked car. He was cited for vagrancy and spent 50 days in Los Angeles County jail. He was registered as a sex offender.

The incident hardly defined his long career. But it’s been a mark on his legacy and was used in efforts to discredit him.

Today, though, Scott Wiener, the state senator who is chair of the California Legislative L.G.B.T.Q. Caucus, and Shirley Weber, the Assembly member who leads the California Legislative Black Caucus, are set to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for a posthumous pardon.

[Read The Times’s obituary for Mr. Rustin.]

“The criminalization of the L.G.B.T.Q. community has never been about preventing harm to anyone, but rather to eradicate and erase L.G.B.T.Q. people from the face of the planet,” they wrote. “Mr. Rustin’s arrest and prosecution was purely about this tragic history.”

Mr. Wiener told me the idea of pardoning Mr. Rustin occurred to him after a conversation with the longtime San Diego L.G.B.T.Q. activist and city commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez.

“Nicole mentioned the arrest and conviction and the sex offender registry,” Mr. Wiener said. “I had known about it, but I hadn’t thought about it for a long time.”

Pardoning Mr. Rustin, he said, would send a message about broader efforts, including some Mr. Wiener has spearheaded as a legislator, to reverse old laws that unfairly target L.G.B.T.Q. people.

Mr. Wiener said he got in touch with Ms. Weber, and they agreed to work together.

Ms. Weber said in a statement that the move was a long overdue corrective.

“He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures in the cause of justice,” she said. “A pardon will ensure his legacy and his place in history unsullied by this incident.”

They enlisted help from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, which tracked down records and supported the effort.

Mr. Ramirez told me he had been pushing to honor Mr. Rustin with a postage stamp. He said celebrating members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community as human rights leaders, with stamps or street names or in the names of schools, is important.

“We need our younger generations to know there are heroes,” he said.

Mr. Ramirez — who wryly described his age as “between 75 and death” — vividly recalled the ways in which L.G.B.T.Q. people were treated as criminals or as mentally ill in the 1950s and 1960s.

He had friends who were sent to mental hospitals by the courts or their parents. Once there, they were often subjected to electroconvulsive therapy or were lobotomized.

If a same-sex couple was caught dancing in a bar, they faced violence and arrest.

[Read more about the history of L.G.B.T.Q. communities in San Francisco.]

That context makes the work of Mr. Rustin, who didn’t deny his sexuality, all the more remarkable, he said.

“Every day, he could’ve been committed or killed,” Mr. Ramirez said.

Walter Naegle, Mr. Rustin’s surviving partner, said the man he knew would have seen a pardon less as a reflection of individual courage than a kind of “apology for the kind of persecution of that time.”

Mr. Naegle said he met Mr. Rustin in 1977, waiting for a light to change. They started talking, and “we just continued the conversation for about 10 years.”

He described his partner as a fighter — one who didn’t need the limelight to propel him.

Still, Mr. Naegle said, he believes it hurt Mr. Rustin to have made one part of his identity secondary as the civil rights movement picked up momentum.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Mr. Rustin began to become involved with gay rights advocacy.

“There were things that only he could do,” Mr. Naegle said.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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