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. DarylB

    Take down this headline you morons. Is this honestly the story you think Dr. King deserves today?

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

      Yes I am sure doctor king wanted to be associated with gay cross dressing trash.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • sam

      Um...it's usually straight guys who cross dress. But you knew that, right Woggy?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Joe Expert

      King would rather be known for cheating on his wife than being a gay supporter. He was a hypocrite.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  2. jorge washinsen

    I am old enough to remember when gay ment something else.I think we have words for a personal meaning and done away with some that we should have kept.But this is a politically correct world and thou shalt not step on any toes.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  3. tommy


    January 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  4. C. A.

    You have got to be kidding!!!! CNN again further loses credibility as a new source for main stream Americans. As an African American, this is simply insulting. How in the world can we equate the civil rights movement and it's attempt to eliminate the injustices inflicted on a single group of folks simply because of their race with Gay Rights in this country?. It is jus flat out WRONG and RIDICULOUS. Blacks suffered unspeakable horrors and injustices prior to the Civil Rights' movements simply because of the color of their skin...a racial fact that could not be mitigated by any means @ that time. And now we are supposed to equate the lifestyle choices of Gay Americans with the injustices suffered by Blacks for so very many years?!!!

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

      It's not a choice. Do some research.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Your hypocrisy, and stupidity makes me lulz.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • AP

      It is NOT a lifestyle choice to be gay. Grow up.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • tommy

      Amen to that!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • 1221

      If someone is born with a predisposition towards risky behavior's (drugs, gambling, pick a poison) is it being born that way or a choice when they act on it?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Duh

      "If someone is born with a predisposition towards risky behavior's (drugs, gambling, pick a poison) is it being born that way or a choice when they act on it?"

      Being gay isn't a risky behavior moron, just like being straight isn't. All the major world organizations have stated being gay is not a choice, it can't be voluntary changed and it's not a mental illness, now can you say that about drugs, gambling, etc.... what an idiot.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • savr13

      Typical Hypocrite.
      I got my civil rights so screw people who don't have equal rights under the law. You call being gay a lifestyle and that speaks volumes about your ignorance. Try reading about other peoples struggles and not just your own!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Joe Expert

      Gay Rights are civil rights. Get real C. A.

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

      I agree !
      I have often wondered about (and over looked) CNN with their biased and inane news reports, and this one tops them all !
      Good Bye CNN News and to ALL of your sponsors.
      Enough is Enough ! ! ! !

      January 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Myto Senseworth

      @C.A. I'm not of African decent, but I'm with you ....kill this artical. I'll say it again..This is MLK day not GAY day !

      January 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "Blacks suffered unspeakable horrors and injustices prior to the Civil Rights' movements simply because of the color of their skin"

      And gays are continually dis...criminated against because of their se...xu...al orientation...sounds similar to me.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • James

      The push for civil rights was enjoined long before the so-called "civil rights era." By blacks as well as many other groups and we are still (blacks included,but not exclusively) doing so. You are like those who don't like hearing that others besides Jews perished in the holocaust. How long will it take for some people to realize that no one group owns the copyright on suffering or virtue?

      January 18, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  5. katie22

    so glad this is front page news today. what are you trying to prove and to whom?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  6. Justin

    Is this what passes as headline news on CNN these days? There are real things happening around the globe that affect us all, kindly report on that. Thanks

    January 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah...idiot...there are other articles on the site besides this one, that address whatever concerns you have. You can read, can't you?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  7. palintwit

    I just wish my daughter Bristol would quit peeing all over everything. Our trailer is starting to smell.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  8. Claire

    Does it matter? Martin Luther King helped advance the civil rights movement in a monumental way. However, rights and acceptance of gays is completely different in the current generation. I think we can appreciate what MLK added to society without inferring his personal beliefs about gay rights.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Joe Expert

      No Claire, civil rights are gay rights are the same.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  9. snake

    gays are still despised today as they were in the 1960;s. maybe even more since they are pushing the public school system to teach that being gay is morally acceptable and an alrnative lifesyle. GO BACK INTO THE CLOSETS AND LEAVE US ALONE.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Observer

      Education is defeating bigotry. Face reality.

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

      Being gay is NOT morally right NOR SHOULD IT EVER be taught to children as being morally right.

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

      "Being gay is NOT morally right NOR SHOULD IT EVER be taught to children as being morally right."

      All the major world organization disagree with you, they have stated being gay is not a choice, it's not a mental illness and it can't be voluntarily changed. Waht is not morally right is prejudice people like you who's hatred is based on stupidity and not facts.

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

      Someone's insecure today...

      January 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • steve c.

      "LEAVE US ALONE"? who are you preaching to? I'm straight and have no problem with the gay community.

      People like you who are so afraid only make me wonder that you are "afraid they will bring you out".

      get a clue. get a life. and go away if you actually think you are right.

      what are you afraid of gay boy?

      January 16, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • James

      It's gratifying (and a little scary) these days for an American to travel outside the borders of the USA and see the extent to which the rest of the world has moved on (and how we haven't). The American century is truly over and it scares me to think what's going to happen of we don't grow the "f" up and stop trying to freeze ourselves in time. Progress ain't that scary folks. Travel a little more.

      January 18, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  10. jorge washinsen

    I will say also,as a Republican businessman, I will be glad when the world starts turning again. I think all holidays should be combined, and everyone shut down and get all of it over with instead of screwing up weeks that can be productive .Every time the world burps the Post Office takes a holiday and musses everything up.They need to discuss why they are going broke while on one of these off the wall paid sabaticals.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  11. Myto Senseworth

    This is MLK day ! NOT GAY DAY !...OK so I made 1 more post.....

    January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  12. alanejr11

    I can't believe that CNN would post an article like this. MLK is celebrated for what he did and said, and his day should not tarnished with open questions that can not be substantiated. Celebrate the man and stop trying to use him CNN!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Myto Senseworth

      Thank you... I agree 100%

      January 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • akb

      I agree too! Let the man's legacy of what he actually did and said prevail! Why waste time on trying to figure out what we will never have the true answer too because he is gone....

      January 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • sam

      Right! Don't forget he was perfect in every way! Those white h00kers he loved so much were just girls he was counciling!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  13. flyingflower

    Why won't my comment post?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  14. Woggy

    No because you can choose not to be gay or not to be gay. You could never choose to be black or white. You cannot give special treatment to someone for poor life choices.

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

      Being gay is NOT a choice.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Woggy's mom

      Sweetie, my best lacy undies are missing again. Have you seen them? Remember I asked you not to wear them around, you stretch them out in the back.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Astro

      Wrong!!! People do not choose to be gay, they are born gay.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  15. SeptimusX


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


      January 16, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  16. Mark

    MLK was a civil rights leader who has been dead for many years now. Arguing over whether or not he would have supported gays is dumb. Honestly, people who hate religion speak of him in glowing terms and they even assume he would tolerate gays today because they revere him as a saint. Honestly, if you think MLK would tolerate gays as a Christian, then you should extend individuals of all faiths the same courtesy...

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

      I agree. For all of the amazing things Dr. King did... And then to have the only headline focus on his perception of gays... Give me a break and focus on the man for the amazing work he did.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Joe Expert

      Yes, except for the fact that a majority of blacks voted against gay marriage in California. Get real.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  17. a1704gxj@gmail.com

    I have news for everybody. MLK was not a saint. Far from it. JFK knew that. After he was killed the powers that be just thought it a good idea to create some kind of black martyr for the colored population.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • JayJ7

      MLK was not a Saint, and you are not sane.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  18. Been There Done That

    I doubt MLK would want his struggle to be compared with that of gay rights.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  19. dd

    Died that was supposed to read died

    January 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  20. jorge washinsen

    If we worried half as much about our own lives and let others worrry about theirs, it would solve a,lot of problems.Martin Luther King was a Republican and therefore I speak no evil of him.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
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About this blog

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.