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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. Dean

    I am tired of people equating a chosen lifestyle with race.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Primewonk

      If you claim that gays choose to gay, then post the citations to peer-reviewed science that supports that contention.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Observer

      Dean,

      I'm tired of ignorant people delusional enough to pretend they can read the minds of millions of people and know they are lying.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • 1221

      Hard wired with a trait or tendency still requires choice to act on it.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Observer

      1221,

      The "choice" is whether to be the person you were born as or to spend you're whole life trying to live a lie.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      What about using a lifestyle to avoid the responsibility of being natural parents. I think some cases are cop outs to avoid the rigors of life, and some are just cases we really do not understand or, for that,matter really care.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • 1221

      Observer: A person with a violent predisposition or criminally inclined should not attempt to subvert his/her behavior if they recognize the damage to self and others? We'll never see eye to eye on this, because I feel you probably have a predisposition to thinking you are right... same as me.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Observer2

      To be or not to be celibate, that is a choice.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • George

      Agreed ... it is simple not the same level of discrimination.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Observer

      1221,

      There are laws restricting behaviors that must be obeyed. There are NO LAWS restricting being gay.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  2. dd

    Really? He did 40 years ago. Why does it matter how he felt about gays? This is a ridiculous article.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Dean

      Amen.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "Why does it matter how he felt about gays?"

      Because if he was bigoted against any other group, then we will need to take everything he says about anything with a grain of salt.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      Same thing about Herman Cain. But,a different pew,and wrong politics.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  3. Greg s

    Absolutely no one can answer for King what his position on Gay marriage would be.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  4. don

    dr. kings father was gay

    January 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  5. 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 violation. It may be a rights issue but I think the word that is used is wrong. Everyone has the same right to engage in the same legal contract. It is an issue of what is the legal contract. It is not an issue of discrimination. If you want contract law to reflex your view then change the contract law through the legislature. Or create the laws you want. But to say that discrimination is occurring toward gays in the sense that African Americans in the 1960 .......... is just false!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Observer

      George,

      Come back when gays are as free as you are to marry the person they love. Until then, just keep dreaming.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Primewonk

      In the 50's, 60's, and earlier, black folks were forbidden, by law, in various states from marrying white folks.

      Today, by law, in various states, gays are forbidden to marry.

      What is different?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • George

      You are making the assumption that I oppose the so called "gay marriage" .... that is not true. I support fair laws for everyone. To call something as "discrimination" that is not .......... I will not stand being manipulated like that. So please .... come back when you read what I have said and stop hating because someone "dared" to disagree with your manipulation of words to mean something they do not! It has been made a violation of equal rights when in fact everyone is being treated the same ... you really disagree with how the law works.... it is not "discrimination" These are separate issues. Address you complaints correctly ... maybe with correct arguments and not sensational "new speak" you could change the laws.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • George

      The issues are separate in my head, where everything makes sense. I don't have to explain, I only have to hold my stance and tell people they're wrong.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • George

      The difference is that blacks were turned away from engaging in marriage because they were black! Gays are not turned away because they are gay!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • George

      And to the other "George" if you disagree fine .... but stop the hate of people that disagree with you! I have shown no such hate.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Observer

      George,

      So if you support gay marriage, then you must disagree with those states that discriminate against it, right?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  6. Mark Johnson

    Dr.King was a social conservative and would be "disgusted" at the decay of morals of the Black community and family thanks to the Federal Gov welfare hand-out system now and everyone' as a baby daddy....

    January 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Josh

      He was a social conservative who didn't like welfare? Who supported JFK, LBJ, and pushed for Medicare, Medicaid, expansions to social security, Aid for Families with Dependent Children (i.e welfare), opposed military spending, etc. A social conservative who despised Barry Goldwater (the major precursor to Ronald Reagan). Come on. He admired Bayard Rustin, etc. What an absurd thing to say...

      January 16, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • LJ

      A social conservative? Do you even know what you're talking about? First and foremost – a social conservative is interested in preserving the social status quo. ABSOLUTELY NO BLACK PERSON AT THAT TIME WAS A SOCIAL CONSERVATIVE. It goes to show your complete lack of an education, which is what would have Dr. King completely appalled. It's not a lack of "morals". Frankly, it's the lack of knowledge and respect for ones history that is disturbing....

      January 16, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. Brosef

    Of all the important things going on in the world; this is what CNN posts on their front page!?

    Wow. Credibility down another notch.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Jim

      A story about Martin Luther King Jr. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day? How absurd!

      January 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Chris R

      You do understand that this is MLK Day right? Go look at your calendar.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • David L.

      Every time I read the comments attached to just about any article, there is somebody, like you, blasting CNN for putting up an article that they don't think is 'relevant' to current issues. CNN posts things they think the public wants to read. If you don't like it, then don't read it. Simple solutions to simple problems for simple people.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Ray

      Yeah, how dare they speak of equality and rights for gays, on a day like this. I feel sorry for you.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Austin

      You're the one reading articles on CNN in the first place.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  8. thebestafricanamericancreation

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4NCnH7RPZY&w=640&h=390]

    January 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  9. Louisa

    He lived during a time when all gays were in the closet. Today with exposure and education it is like smoking...people aren't smoking like they used to and gays are more accepted. I think he would have no problem with gays today. He had a loving heart.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • snake

      you are ful of s hi t!. king never would have been suportive of gays. he never mentioned them and would have lost support with the public and the baptist church if he came out in suport of gays. gays are not any more accepted today as they were in kings times, all lies and prophaganda.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  10. house

    This article is yet another example of how Bayard Rustin's race is negated to uphold the gay rights movement. Rarely, do I see an article about Bayard Rustin understanding that his skin tone may have been more important during the 40s, 50s, and 60s toward's his civil rights then him being gay. Black and Gay is not necessarily the same as White and Gay during those times or even know. It is an insult to portray Bayard Rustin as either black or only gay.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  11. QS

    While King was a positive historical figure for many reason, I think the better question to be asking at this point in time is – what do the current crop of conservative presidential candidates think of gay people?

    After all, King is long dead and even if he could come back and tell us what he truly thinks or thought of gay people it would have no bearing on current affairs like the anti-gay sentiments of the conservative party will!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Emcee Ice Cold

    "surely you mean "ask" not "axe""

    No, I meant axe.

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

      You misspelled "aks".

      January 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  13. don

    he was in love with a gay

    January 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  14. nooneknows

    This is akin to asking Thomas Jefferson how he felt about slavery.
    The times have changed and the question is pointless, as surely MLK's views would have evolved just as most of the populace has evolved.
    If the question is: were he alive TODAY, how would feel? I'm certain he would support gay rights.

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

      even with his religious affiliation? you are CERTAIN? 100%?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  15. jim

    Who the hell cares what he would have thought?

    January 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • honey badger

      Honey badger don't give a fuuuuuuuck.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  16. mark

    i am sure he hated gays as much as everyone else back then.....what a bunch of hypocrites !!!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  17. Leucadia Bob

    Mike Rudolph (Encinitas, CA) one awesome musician
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vS4XouXr3AQ&w=640&h=390]

    January 16, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  18. rikers

    He didn't think about gay people. He was a womanizer.

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

      Not to mention a cokehead and plaigerizer. But nobody mentions his coke binges and hiring blonde white h-o-o-k-e-r-s to beat up on and do his business with.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      I think most men that are not gay are womanizers.The others are manniizers.Any one got a better definition?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  19. googiecat

    Whatever MLK thought about the subject personally he obviously never would have gone against conventional mores of the time publicly. His whole approach was to present a sympathetic and non threatening image of African Americans to the larger population.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  20. Creature

    I can't imagine King as a staunch Christian condoning the gay lifestyle. Gays were all but invisible back then anyway.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.