The headlines splashed across the local papers the next day. “Arrest Negro Lecturer for Morals Accusation,” stated the Pasadena Independent. Bayard Rustin, the civil rights organizer who would become famous for organizing the March on Washington, had been arrested on a charge of “vagrancy and lewd behavior” by Pasadena police officers.
Rustin had recently returned from Africa and was visiting Pasadena on a lecture tour sponsored by a Quaker organization, the Friends Service Committee. As secretary for student and general affairs with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, Rustin was was thought of by many as the “American Gandhi,” for his philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
In the 1940s, he had campaigned in California on behalf of Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps, and during the Second World War, he had spent 27 months in prison for resisting the draft. In the South, he served 22 days on a chain gang for violating segregation laws and was beaten by white police officers for refusing to move from a whites-only section of a bus.
Rustin knew firsthand the difficulties of being black in mid-20th-century America. But in Pasadena, on the night of January 21, 1953, he found himself in a different dilemma. After completing a well-received lecture at the Pasadena Athletic Club, he was caught having sex with two men in a parked car at the corner of Raymond Avenue and Green Street.
The following day, he found himself before a Pasadena judge, who charged him with performing a “lewd and lascivious act.” Rustin pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to 60 days in the county jail.
Though many in the Fellowship of Reconciliation knew Rustin was gay, the embarrassing circumstances of arrest promptly led to his firing by the organization.
At the time, homosexuality was criminalized in California, and gays were commonly referred to as “sex deviants” or “sex perverts.” The same year Rustin was arrested, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order prohibiting the employment of gays and lesbians in federal government.
Pasadena was no different from any other city when it came to prosecuting homosexuals. “Vice clean-ups” conducted by the Pasadena Police Department were common. An eight-week investigation by the vice squad in the fall of 1938 resulted in the arrests of many men, most of whom were slapped with the charge of being an “idle, lewd, and dissolute person”—a vague offense from 19th-century legal statues that was often used against gay men. The charge carried such stigma that it could ruin careers. After Walter P. Bliss, a well-regarded Pasadena physician, was arrested during the raid, he committed suicide.
In those days, homosexuality was seen as an aberrant psychological condition. During the 1938 “morals purge,” the L.A. Times reported that Pasadena’s vice squad was recruiting “four nationally known scientists” to treat those arrested. One of the scientists, Clifford Wright, proposed that an “improper ratio of male and female hormones in the bodies of these men is largely responsible for their abnormal actions,” and recommended six months to two years of “injections of pituitary and hormone extracts” as a cure.
In the early 1940s, a shake-up of the Pasadena Police Department revealed that vice squad officers had been forcing suspects arrested for “abnormal sex acts” to receive treatment from an unlicensed doctor who used hypnotism and pseudo-psychology to “cure” his patients, while splitting the profits with vice squad members.
Rustin was spared these fates, but the fallout from his two months in the Los Angeles County Jail nearly derailed his career. After his release, he was unable to find employment and was advised by a social worker to consider getting a job as a janitor or domestic servant. Eventually he sought the help of a psychologist, who recommended that he keep his sexuality a private matter while he was working in civil rights causes.
“I know now that for me, sex must be sublimated, if I am to live with myself and in this world longer,” Rustin wrote to a friend at the time. As John D’emilio notes in Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Free Press, 2003), “The arrest record trailed Rustin for many years afterward” and “severely restricted the public roles he was allowed to assume.” At the height of his involvement with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Rustin suffered the humiliation of having the arrest record read before Congress by South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond in an attempt to discredit him.
Rustin nevertheless had a long and successful partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from the time of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 until King’s death in 1968. Rustin is widely credited with introducing King to the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, and he served as King’s secretary from 1956 until 1960. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which Rustin organized, remains a landmark in civil rights history.
King’s legacy, however, overshadows Rustin’s. As a PBS biography of Rustin notes, “Because of the stigma attached to homosexuality, most Americans do not know who he was or what he accomplished.”