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What did MLK think about gay people?
We know what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. thought about race, but what about gay rights? His life and his sermons offers clues, some say.
January 16th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

What did MLK think about gay people?

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN)– Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was writing an advice column in 1958 for Ebony magazine when he received an unusual letter.

“I am a boy,” an anonymous writer told King. “But I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don't want my parents to know about me. What can I do?”

In calm, pastoral tones, King told the boy that his problem wasn’t uncommon, but required “careful attention.”

“The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired,” King wrote. “You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.”

We know what King thought about race, poverty and war. But what was his attitude toward gay people, and if he was alive today would he see the gay rights movement as another stage of the civil rights movement?

That’s not the type of question most people will consider on this Monday as the nation celebrates King’s national holiday. Yet the debate over King’s stance toward gay rights has long divided his family and followers. That debate is poised to go public again because of the upcoming release of two potentially explosive books, one of which examines King’s close relationship with an openly gay civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin.

The author of both books says King’s stance on gay rights is unclear because the Ebony advice column may be the only public exchange on record where he touches on the morality of homosexuality.

Yet King would have been a champion of gay rights today because of his view of Christianity, says Michael Long, author of, “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters,” who shared the story of King’s Ebony letter.

“Dr. King never publicly welcomed gays at the front gate of his beloved community. But he did leave behind a key for them - his belief that each person is sacred, free and equal to all to others,” says Long, also author of the upcoming “Keeping it straight? Martin Luther King, Jr., Homosexuality, and Gay Rights.”

Did King’s dream include gay people?

One person close to King, though, would disagree.

Rev. Bernice King led a march to her father’s graveside in 2005 while calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. She was joined by Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Church in Georgia, where she served as an elder at the time. Long, who recently settled out of court with four young men who filed lawsuits claiming he coerced them into sexual relationships, publicly condemned homosexuality.

King did not answer an interview request, but she has spoken publicly about her views.

During a speech at a church meeting in New Zealand, she said her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”

Yet her mother, Coretta Scott King, was a vocal supporter of gay rights. One of her closest aides was gay. She also invoked her husband’s dream.

Ravi Perry, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said King’s widow once said in a public speech that everyone who believed in her husband’s dream should “make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

There is no private or public record of King condemning gay people, Perry says. Even the FBI’s surveillance of King’s private phone conversations didn’t turn up any moment where King disparaged gay people, she says.

“If Dr. King were anti-gay, there would likely be a sermon, a speech, a recording of some kind indicating such,” she says. “And knowing how closely his phones were tapped; surely there would be a record of such statements.”

Those who say King did not condemn gays and would have supported gay rights today point to King’s theology.

Though King was a Christian minister, he didn’t embrace a literal reading of the Bible that condemns homosexuality, some historians say. King’s vision of the Beloved Community – his biblical-rooted vision of humanity transcending its racial and religious differences – expanded people’s rights, not restricted them, they say.

Rev. C.T. Vivian, who worked with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says King would have championed gay rights today.

“Martin was a theologian,” Vivian says. “Martin starts with the fact that God loves everybody, and all men and all women were created by God. He based his whole philosophy on God’s love for all people.”

King’s relationship with ‘Brother Bayard’

Those who say King would have championed gay rights also point to King’s treatment of one of the movement’s most important leaders, Bayard Rustin.

Rustin was an openly gay civil rights leader who is widely credited with organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He was an organizational genius, the man who insisted that King speak last on the program, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech the resonance it would not have had otherwise, says Jerald Podair, author of “Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer.”

“He was the kind of guy who could tell you how many portable toilets you needed for 250,000 people in a demonstration," Podair says. “He was a details guy. King needed him for that march.”

But Rustin could do more than arrange a demonstration. He was also a formidable thinker and debater. He was born to a 15-year-old single mother and never graduated from college.

The movement was led by intellectual heavyweights like King, but even among them, Rustin stood out, Podair says. He read everything and was a visionary. One aide to President Lyndon Johnson described him as one of the five smartest men in America, says Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“People who heard him speak were transfixed,” Podair says.

Rustin became one of the movement’s most eloquent defenders of its nonviolent philosophy, says Saladin Ambar, a political scientist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“He was one of the few individuals not afraid to debate with Malcolm X in public,” Ambar says. “Rustin more than held his own and really challenged Malcolm to push his thinking.”

Rustin was a special assistant to King and once headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the planning of the March on Washington, King resisted calls to jettison Rustin because he was gay, Podair says.

King, though, didn’t speak out on behalf of gay rights because he was doing all he could to hold the movement together, historians say.

He had to constantly fend off rumors that the movement was infiltrated by communists. He was also criticized for expanding the movement to take on poverty and oppose the Vietnam War.

“The movement superseded any discussion of gay rights,” Ambar says. “King was dedicated to the cause at hand.”

With all that was going on, King couldn’t afford to wage a public campaign defending Rustin’s homosexuality, says Vivian, a SCLC colleague of King’s.

“Any employee that would employ a gay person at the time who was outwardly gay would have problems,” Vivian says. “I don’t care if you were the president of the Untied Sates, you would have trouble doing that.”

After the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin remained as King’s adviser. The two, however, drifted apart when King became more radical during the last three years of his life, says Adair, Rustin’s biographer.

When Rustin died in 1987, he was starting to receive attention from gay and lesbian activists who linked civil rights with gay rights, Podair says.

Rustin was a late convert to their cause.

“He never put it [homosexuality] front and center,” Podair says. “He never politicized it until the end of his life. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”

It’s no longer unusual today for gay and lesbian activists to draw parallels between their struggles and King’s legacy. Vivian, King’s SCLC colleague, says the comparison is apt.

“There was a time when black people were afraid to be themselves among white people,” he says. “You had to fit a stereotype in order to be accepted. They’re going through the same thing but now they feel better about themselves.”

Vivian says the movement shouldn’t be limited to race.

“As we were freeing up black people, we’re freeing up the whole society.”

Long, author of the upcoming books on King and Rustin, says King’s vision transcended his personal limitations. Maybe he could have said more to that anonymous boy who wrote him at Ebony. But he did leave him a key to the Beloved Community– even if he didn’t realize it at the time, Long says.

Now, Long says, it’s up to those who claim King today to use that key.

“A turn of that key and a gentle push on the gate, swinging it wide open so everyone can enter into the Beloved Community,” he says. “That’s the best way to advance the legacy of Martin Luther King.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Black issues • Christianity • Church • Culture wars • Gay marriage • Gay rights • Leaders • Uncategorized

soundoff (1,986 Responses)
  1. edmundburkeson

    People forget that MLK was Republican and also a Christian pastor. It is a stretch to think that he supported gay rights Blake's wishful article notwithstanding!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Snow

      Just because King was republican does not mean he supported its current agenda.. Repubs at one point in time nominated an man who openly supported segregation as their presidential candidate.. are you saying King supported that too?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • sam

      You forget that there used to be a time in this country where republican and/or christian DIDN'T mean 'psychotic fundie idiot'.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  2. JC

    Seriously? Who cares? And he has, respectfully, been dead for a long time. No wonder Illinois passed Drews Law....I guess the opinion and testimony of the dead is important. (sarcasm) Do we have no living leaders that we can go to for this? Seriously? How sad

    January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • honey badger

      Honey badger don't give a fck.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  3. Zas

    What a load of bull. What does this have to do with MLK. Bad day to try to push the gay agenda.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • JC

      Apparently there is no bad day to push the gay agenda

      January 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • JC

      The agenda is obviously more important than the legacy of an amazing human being

      January 16, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  4. andrew.peter

    They gave no rationale for him to be a gay rights supporter. because he was a close friend with a gay man for the purpose of civil rights activism?? and because he never said anything about the gay issue?? come on. Is that the best you can come up with?
    Also, what's this nonsensical garbage about leaving a key for the beloved community. how did he "leave a key"? Maybe I missed something, or maybe it was just fluff and rainbows that means whatever you want it to mean.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  5. Lilith

    This would have been quite a dilema for him. The common sense of equal civil rights for all while his religious bent is pulling him down another path. I would guess the best way to answer this question is to look at how religious leaders today justify their stance on the issue.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  6. Joepub

    This type of pondering is a waste of time. All this "what if" bunk doesn't even really solve anything.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  7. kude

    The question which has TRULY plagued the human consciousness for thousands of years: What would Oprah do?

    January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  8. Coe-Retta smelly ole stankHole

    No wonder Martin loved pocket rockeds firing off in his mouth.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • George

      You must be speaking from experience. Grow up.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  9. /sigh

    Only in America is their still a question concerning the equal rights of someone due to their color race or creed.
    The land of the free indeed.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Ironicus

      I think you need to get out more and look at other countries. This is not the only place with bigotry or even ethnic bigotry.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • sam

      'Only' in America? Dumba.ss.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • ObaManure

      Shut your mouth, nig ger.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Not perfect

      You have no idea. A nation that offers you an education, a job, a chance for whatever you could want, and it's never enough.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • George

      No! Under the law pretty much everyone is being treated equally. Sorry to bust you bubble! It may be equally bad, but it is equal!

      January 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • George

      And I'm going to keep insisting on this all day whether it makes any sense or not! Because I am right! I'm an idiot, but I'm so right!

      January 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  10. ken

    He would have supported Gay Rights the moment he learned it was the most politically expedient thing to do at that time.
    You can bank on it. He's the founder of the modern Identifiable Group - Grievance Industry.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  11. Karla F

    Anything not to honor the man...Hello it was the 1960's! Really CNN you have go to do better....smh @ this foolishness!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  12. kj

    Using the questions of "What did MLK think about gay people?" & "What did MLK think about gay rights?" interchangeably is a dishonest bait-and-switch. There are many people who might love a gay person who does not agree with gay marriage.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • kj

      *do

      January 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Tad

      How dare you draw any comparison between civil rights and gay rights. How dare you use this man's holiday to push your left leaning agenda. How dare you.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Ivan

      They might.. but they don't.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • sam

      Tad's new to the internet. Isn't that sweet?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  13. CW Hart

    Talk about puttion words in someone's mouth. Just read the stuffer posts.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Observer

      "puttion words"? Wow.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  14. Linda J

    What a slap in the face to a positive historical figure and on his holiday. A Christian Minister. Great job Censationalized News Network.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • honey badger

      Honey badger don't give a fck. Don't be a b!tch.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  15. joesixpackjr

    Whoever wrote this article must not have been living in the 1960s or else he would know that gay rights and gay marriage was not even an issue during MLK's lifetime. Gay marriage was still unthinkable. So what is the point of this article???

    January 16, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • George

      The point is to push an agenda ... MLK had nothing to do with. The point is to twist the meaning of words and actions into something they are not.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Tom

      The point is to advance CNN's liberal point of view by suggesting that MLK would be all for gay rights if he were alive today. Forget the quote to the boy, just listen to the third parties who know how he would have felt. Terrible excuse for journalism.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Snow

      "The point is to push an agenda "

      So, you say only the gay rights supporters have an agenda to push and you do not?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  16. George

    Gays already have civil rights ... which are the rights everyone else has. legal protection ... the same. Don't see gay marriage as a civil rights issue. It may be a rights issue but I think the word that is used is wrong.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Peter

      By definition issues around marriage are 'civil' in nature because matters of government recognition are civil in type (not private).

      January 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Patricia

      Civil rights means the rights to full legal, social, and economic equality, there are benefits when you get married gay partnership do not have if they are denied marriage.

      Tax Benefits
      Filing joint income tax returns with the IRS and state taxing authorities.
      Creating a "family partnership" under federal tax laws, which allows you to divide business income among family members.

      Estate Planning Benefits
      Inheriting a share of your spouse's estate.
      Receiving an exemption from both estate taxes and gift taxes for all property you give or leave to your spouse.
      Creating life estate trusts that are restricted to married couples, including QTIP trusts, QDOT trusts, and marital deduction trusts.
      Obtaining priority if a conservator needs to be appointed for your spouse - that is, someone to make financial and/or medical decisions on your spouse's behalf.

      Government Benefits
      Receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for spouses.
      Receiving veterans' and military benefits for spouses, such as those for education, medical care, or special loans.
      Receiving public assistance benefits.

      Employment Benefits
      Obtaining insurance benefits through a spouse's employer.
      Taking family leave to care for your spouse during an illness.
      Receiving wages, workers' compensation, and retirement plan benefits for a deceased spouse.
      Taking bereavement leave if your spouse or one of your spouse's close relatives dies.

      Medical Benefits
      Visiting your spouse in a hospital intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours in other parts of a medical facility.
      Making medical decisions for your spouse if he or she becomes incapacitated and unable to express wishes for treatment.

      Death Benefits
      Consenting to after-death examinations and procedures.
      Making burial or other final arrangements.

      Family Benefits
      Filing for stepparent or joint adoption.
      Applying for joint foster care rights.
      Receiving equitable division of property if you divorce.
      Receiving spousal or child support, child custody, and visitation if you divorce.

      Housing Benefits
      Living in neighborhoods zoned for "families only."
      Automatically renewing leases signed by your spouse.

      Consumer Benefits
      Receiving family rates for health, homeowners', auto, and other types of insurance.
      Receiving tuition discounts and permission to use school facilities.
      Other consumer discounts and incentives offered only to married couples or families.

      Other Legal Benefits and Protections
      Suing a third person for wrongful death of your spouse and loss of consortium (loss of intimacy).
      Suing a third person for offenses that interfere with the success of your marriage, such as alienation of affection and criminal conversation (these laws are available in only a few states).
      Claiming the marital communications privilege, which means a court can't force you to disclose the contents of confidential communications between you and your spouse during your marriage.
      Receiving crime victims' recovery benefits if your spouse is the victim of a crime.
      Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for noncitizen spouse.
      Visiting rights in jails and other places where visitors are restricted to immediate family.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Observer

      If gays had EQUAL rights, this wouldn't be an issue. Guess again.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • George

      Gay ... white ... black ... everyone is treated the same so no violation.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Duh

      "Gay ... white ... black ... everyone is treated the same so no violation."

      No they are NOT when it comes to marriage. What an idiot.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Observer

      George,

      Is reading comprehension a problem? Should Patricia have responded in another language that you might be able to read?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • George

      Again including these facts .... everyone is treated the same under the law. There is not a civil rights violation!

      January 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • sam

      I'm so glad we have you to decide what's an issue or not. Damn you're smart!

      January 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Observer

      You can marry the person you want for a spouse, but gays can't. Very simple. You SHOULD be able to comprehend that, so why not?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • sam

      George is just being willfully ignorant for the hell of it. There's no point.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Patrica

      "There is not a civil rights violation!"

      So the fact gay couples are denied equal social and economical benefits of marriage, their civil rights are in violation. Let's guess your a prejudice Christian aren't you.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • George

      I love the name calling. I have been logical. My logic is impeccable.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • fosta

      this is non-sense... Gays CAN get married if they want to. Nobody ever said that a gay person can't get married. The issue is re-defining what marraige and the natural system of humanity is... But any gay man has the right to marry any woman he finds who will put up with him. Certain pairs are just unnatural... man with a man, man with a horse, man with an alligator get over it. Just because you don't have a natural affection dosen't mean you get to redefine natural affection.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • sam

      Impeccable...that is the funniest thing I've heard all day. Thanks, George.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • sam

      Unnatural, fosta? You mean like you + anyone else?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  17. kude

    Tell you the truth, I am sick of these. All of em, making King look like the perfect human. Maybe CNN wouldn't be viewed as biased if they showed the other side of King. Nobody is perfect, no matter how perfect they are made to look.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • sam

      If he hadn't been shot down, he wouldn't be the supposed martyr he's being portrayed as now.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Stormfront

      @kude: They refuse to mention his abusiveness whenever he'd have his "meetings". How he would send people out to hire blonde white h-o-o-k-e-r-s and beat them viciously, screaming racial epithets at them, then he'd do his thing with them and kick them out. It doesn't mention his coke binges. It doesn't mention his plaigerism. Nothing.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  18. Beam

    Frankly I don't understand why people now in our time are spending so much time and energy to figure out the thoughts on someone no longer with us. We know what he did stand for and that was equal rights for those of all races...why can't we let that treasure be remembered and honored and leave the guessing alone? Next they will wonder if he believed in aliens living on other planets...or what he thought about space/time travel...etc. etc...good grief.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  19. Steph

    This is like asking "What Would Jesus Do". Answers change depending on the culture, times and the openess of the minds involved at that time. MLK had goal that stemmed from his own struggles. I don't think the question is a valid one.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. Micky

    MLK would have evolved by now and would approve of gay marriage. He thought too much in favor of equal rights to deny gay marriage! I wish this man was alive now!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
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