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Civil rights hero Bayard Rustin gets official pardon for gay sex conviction

Civil Rights icon Bayard Rustin, the right-hand advisor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott will receive an official pardon for a gay sex conviction more than 70 years after the fact.

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued the pardon as part of a larger executive order aimed at granting clemency to citizens convicted of wrongdoing for consensual sexual encounters.

“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.

“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 Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, in a statement. “This pardon assures his place in history.”

Gay Sen. Scott Wiener echoed Weber’s sentiments. “Generations of LGBT people — including countless gay men — were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex,” he said. He called the pardon of Rustin “a huge step forward.”

Police arrested Bayard Rustin in Pasadena in 1953 for having gay sex in a parked car and served 60 days in jail for “sex perversion.” The conviction would follow him throughout his career, often forcing him into informal, advisory positions while working with Dr. King.

Throughout his career, Rustin argued to strengthen labor unions and closely align the Civil Rights movement with the Democratic Party. Late in life, he also became an outspoken advocate of LGBTQ rights, often comparing the struggles of queer people in the 1980s with those of people of color in the 1960s.

In short, it’s about damn time.

Related: Bayard Rustin: The Gay Dreamer Behind Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech