Bayard Rustin was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights.
Due to criticism over his sexuality, he usually acted as an influential adviser behind the scenes to civil-rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. King led the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. Rustin helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership and teaching King about nonviolence. Unfortunately other leaders distanced themselves from Rustin publicly because he was gay.
Rustin helped plan the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, however his legacy was tarnished by a 1953 conviction after he was arrested for engaging in public sex in a parked car in Pasadena. He was prosecuted under laws targeting LGBTQ people. He spent 50 days in a Los Angeles County jail and was registered as a sex offender. Early last year he was posthumously pardoned by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Scott Wiener, the state senator who leads the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and Shirley Weber, the Assembly member who heads the California Legislative Black Caucus, asked the governor to pardon Rustin.
Not only did Newsom pardon Rustin, but he issued a broader clemency initiative aimed at clearing others who faced similar treatment.
“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.”
In the 1980s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay causes, speaking at events as an activist and supporter of human rights.
Later in life, while still devoted to securing workers’ rights, Rustin joined other union leaders in aligning with ideological neoconservatism and (after his death), President Ronald Reagan praised him for his work for civil rights and “for human rights throughout the world”. On Nov. 20th, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Rustin died on Aug. 24th, 1987 of a perforated appendix. Rustin was survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of ten years.