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California pardons gay civil rights leader in new initiative

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A civil rights leader who was gay and a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was posthumously pardoned by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also announced Wednesday what may be the nation's first process for forgiving those convicted under outdated laws punishing homosexual activity.

Bayard Rustin was a key organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 where King gave his seminal “I Have a Dream" speech. He also helped plan other nonviolent protests and boycotts to end racial discrimination.

Newsom pardoned Rustin for his arrest in 1953 when he was found having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, where he was appearing as part of a lecture tour on anti-colonial struggles in West Africa.

Rustin served 50 days in Los Angeles County jail and had to register as a sex offender before returning to his home state of New York. He died in 1987.

Newsom noted that police and prosecutors nationwide at the time used charges like vagrancy, loitering and sodomy to punish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.

He issued an executive order creating a new initiative to identify those who might be eligible for pardons and swiftly consider those applications.

Rustin “is far from alone,” Newsom said in the order. He encouraged others in similar circumstances "to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”

“Countless others in California, as well as around the country, have experienced similar unequal application of the law because of stigma, bias and ignorance," Newsom said. "His conviction is part of a long and reprehensible history of a criminal prohibitions on the very existence of LGBTQ people and their intimate associations and relationships.”

Equality Federation executive director Rebecca Isaacs and Movement Advancement Project research director Naomi Goldberg said it appears Newsom's is the first such clemency effort in any state.

“California’s new initiative gives them a path to clear their names,” Isaacs said in a statement.

Newsom first gained national prominence in 2004 when, as San Francisco's mayor, he ordered officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The practice was overturned then but eventually became the law nationwide.

Last month, the California Legislature’s LGBTQ and black caucuses asked the Democratic governor to pardon Rustin.

Rustin's close friends knew he was gay, but his religious and political associates distanced themselves after his arrest, Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber told Newsom on behalf of the caucuses.

“Generations of LGBT people — including countless gay men — were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex," Wiener said in a statement praising Newsom's actions. “This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades.”

Weber said the pardon helps leave Rustin's legacy in the civil rights movement “uncompromised.”

“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,” she said in a statement praising Newsom. “This pardon assures his place in history.”

Rustin was stripped of his leadership post at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization involved in the civil rights movement, after U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina read Rustin’s arrest file into the Congressional Record.

California repealed the law against consensual sex between same-sex adults in 1975. In 1997, it created a way for those individuals to be removed from the California Sex Offender Registry. But neither step changed the original convictions.

President Barack Obama honored Rustin posthumously with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.