As It Happens

Bayard Rustin, gay civil rights leader prosecuted for his sexuality, posthumously pardoned

California has posthumously pardoned gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. He worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped organize the March on Washington and was arrested in 1953 for having consensual sex with a man.

Bayard Rustin was the 'powerhouse' of the civil rights movement, says California Assembly member Shirley Weber

California's governor is posthumously pardoning gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who was arrested for having sex with another man in 1953. (Eddie Adams/The Associated Press)

The governor of California issued a posthumous pardon Wednesday for gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

Throughout the civil rights movement, Rustin played a key role, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and organizing the March on Washington. But his sexuality often kept him out of the spotlight — and it made him a target of anti-gay laws.

In 1953, Rustin was in Pasadena, Calif., to deliver a speech on peace. Instead, he was arrested for having sex with a man and was forced to register as a sex offender. 

Shirley Weber is a California Assembly member and the chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Weber about Rustin's untold legacy and what it means to finally see him pardoned.

Here is part of their conversation.

Why was it important for you to get California's governor to pardon Bayard Rustin?

The incident ... occurred in California, and Bayard Rustin has been a giant, really, in the civil rights movement that was somehow hid by so many, with regards to folks not wanting to deal with — not his competence or his commitment to the movement — but his lifestyle.

They didn't want to deal with the fact that he was gay.

Bayard Rustin points to a map showing the path of the March on Washington during a news conference in 1963. (The Associated Press)

And you're speaking of an arrest that took place in January of 1953, when Bayard Rustin was found in a car with two other men. He was already active in the civil rights movement. He was already a leader. What effect did that have on his ability to work in the movement?

By then, he was pretty much entrenched in the movement and his role was clear, in terms of how important it was. But I think he never really got the kind of credit, the out front credit, in 1953, and coming forward, as he should have received.

People were very nervous about whether or not the movement would suffer as a result of him being arrested and being charged. Some saw it, obviously, as an effort to try to control the movement because the other gentlemen who were in the car were not charged with the same thing and did not get prison or jail time, as he got.

So it was kind of a racist act at some point. But also designed to try to sully his reputation and keep him from being involved in the civil rights movement. And obviously, it didn't, because the March on Washington that took place 10 years later was successful because of Bayard Rustin.

How was he regarded within the movement? He helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was very, very involved in the movement. A key person in the movement. But the influence to, I guess, downplay him, or keep him in the shadows — was it because there was prejudice against him being gay?

Of course. I mean, it's interesting how not only the African-American community, particularly the African-American community, I should say, and some other communities, handled the issue of a person who was LGBT — who's gay and who's out about it — have a tendency to not pay attention to it.

In other words, it's not that we don't know it's there. It's just that we don't talk about it. And so, as a result, it's one of these undiscussed items in black communities — this who is and is not — especially at that time.

So when you look at the March on Washington you see the name, you hear the name Bayard Rustin. But you don't have really long discussions about it. And if you look at many of the books on civil rights, Bayard Rustin's name may be mentioned, but not in the sense that you get a sense that he's really the powerhouse behind the movement.

King kept him there because he was a valued member in terms of organizing. But I'm sure Bayard knew, and others, that he was not going to be out front because that's something that they just didn't do in black communities at that time.

It's something very interesting as well that he would not deny that he was a gay man. I mean, he could have been in the closet. He could have been able to function, perhaps more easily, more publicly, within the movement, if he had just, I guess, hid the fact that he was a homosexual. Why was it so important to him that he not hide his identity?

When you read about his life and you read a little bit about who he was — he was a person of tremendous strength and determination.

He did not take the easy path that some would have taken and that many did take in the civil rights movement and other movements around the country where they did not identify themselves as being gay because they didn't want to deal with the pressure and the backlash, and some took wives.

But that was the standard. That was acceptable in the '40s in the '50s. Everybody had a cousin who was kind of like that, but that person could never bring their significant other around and could never participate as an openly gay person in family events. And that's really quite tragic, you know. But that was his life.

But he was one who was not going to hide who he was. He wasn't going to marry somebody, pretend he was heterosexual, or that kind of thing. He was authentic and they had to accept him as he was.

Written by Sarah Jackson and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.