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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. CJ

    I do not care what MLK thought of gay people. He helped Black Americans and that is what he is known for.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  2. Roberto

    @J – Even if God was not in the equation.. it is disgusting!

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

      "Even if God was not in the equation.. it is disgusting!"

      What's disgusting is prejudice people like you. All the world organizations have stated being gay is not a choice, it can't be voluntarily changed and it's not a mental illness. Your prejudice is a CHOICE that is what is so gross about you!

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

      Killing a live being to eat is disgusting to a vegetarian
      Asian communities that eating dog meat or snake meat as delicacy is disgusting to westerners
      western culture of dating and doing it like bunnies before marriage is disgusting to conservative communities..

      It is all relative and in YOUR opinion that gay is disgusting.. to people involved in a gay relationship, it feels the same as me sleeping with my wife.

      I find it disgusting that you do not have the capability to see things from any other point of view than your own..

      January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  3. ken

    Don't tell me gays are going to want reparations too!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  4. J

    MLK didn't believe in the divnity of Jesus Christ..he was no Christian. His christianity was merely a platform for his social justice message. On that basis, who knows what he thought about gay rights and who cares. It is a sin and it doesnt matter whose opinion you listen to..only Gods opinion matters.

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

      "It is a sin and it doesnt matter whose opinion you listen to..only Gods opinion matters."

      lol gods opinion is nothing but the bigoted words of fallible humans written over 1500+ years. To believe other humans when they tell you they are divinely inspired by god is irresponsible and below the level of critical thinking adults.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • sam

      Damn, I love it when christians point at other christians and insist they're not christian enough. It's hilarious.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • A

      And what exactly is God's opinion? Have you spoken with "Him"?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  5. pete

    martin was a gay drum major

    January 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  6. Roberto

    John Blake – get this off CNN. Not worth discussion on a day like this. SHAME ON YOU!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Osu girl

      So true! This is so disrespectful of CNN to post this on MLK day! I am so tired of the GLBT community acting like being black and gay is the same thing. It's NOT! I honestly don't think MLK cared about the gay community's plight. There were BIGGER issues at that time. CNN you should be ashamed of yourself. Stop climbing on the Don Lemon bandwagon!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • sam

      Osu girl: you forgot to add, "Like, oh my gosh! Whatever!"

      January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. nwatcher

    Why must every topic end up being a discussion about gays? Pure speculation on the anyone's part to say what MLK would do with a topic he did not address while alive. I can as easily speculate that it is a complete abuse of the civil rights movement Dr. King championed to equate it with gay 'rights'.

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

      gay rights are civil rights you id...iot!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  8. Carrie

    Who cares!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  9. Roberto

    @Alex – You are so right!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  10. Jubril

    My post is not appearing on CNN, seems anderson cooper, don lemon or one of the other cnn gay correspondence must be filtering messages

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

      It's much more likely that you're just a god.damn idiot.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  11. snake

    gay people, esp male screamers/flamers are the most foulest lowlifes on the planet

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

      If you want to live in the US you should learn to speak English. Please focus on learning our language before trying to debate social issues.

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

      IAN, get back into your closet you filthy, nasty piece if s hit!

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

      snake,

      Nope. Ignorant bigots are much worse.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • sam

      snake, the louder you complain, the more obvious it is you're just overcompensating for the tickly feeling you get when you look at other boys. It's okay.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • steve c.

      so "snake", you claim not to like gays, yet you use a name that refers to male genitalia.

      yeah, you're not gay. You just wish you were.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  12. Alex

    After we get gay rights, can we get some polygamy rights? My two girlfriends and I want to come out of our closet and get married, have kids, and teach them that being gay or polygamous is a matter of how a person feels and that MLK fought for equal rights for everyone who feels they are black, not just blacks. It's about how you feel, not your looks that should determine that people owe you respect. If I like to see my two girlfriends make love to each other and then give me leftovers, who am I to complain? At least they love me... and that love should be legally protected and legalized as a proper family... because family is about love, right? Our kids will be taught that. You're all wrong who say I'm wrong, because I'm right and you're bigots. Gay rights! Polygamy rights! Liberty for all!

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

      WRONG!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Serenade Eega

      In all honesty, I will admittedly say that the parallels of gay marriage and polygamy is one that is laughable. Polygamy is one which has been practiced and advocated biblically, however was condemned by free thinking individuals. Gay rights is one condemned biblically, but accepted by free thinkers.
      Either way, I will say that if you're all consenting adults who accept the conditions of your arrangement then, well go ahead.

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

      Well you should get backers from Christians since the bible does support that type of marriage.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • sam

      @Duh – christians will eventually do anything that suits their purposes. So it's possible.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  13. Dr EJG

    it's preposterous that this be posted on CNN. there is a time and a place for every movement. apples and oranges, CNN. apples and oranges. not every movement is going to occur at the same time, nor is every message all inclusive. as another commenter wrote, CNN is trolling.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  14. dan

    MLK wasn't anti-gay because he had a gay friend. Just like I'm not racist because I have a black friend.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  15. Roberto

    Gays have been looked down on ever since humanity began for the ugly choice they make and the un-natural thing they do! Why mix it with color???

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

      You are human garbage.

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

      so Ian – tell us how you really feel. Try to use a line other than the 'human garbage' one...

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

      Learn more than the simplistic modern Western Christian version of history. Gays were admired and even revered in the ancient world, the early Church, and native American cultures, to name a few.

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

      Lol.. did you get that piece of info from your church on bible fundie's book reading day?

      if you actually open the history books, from the days of David to Egyptians to Romans, even as early as Victorian era, history is rife with men being at it with other men..

      January 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  16. margie waterman

    I was 16 when MLK was assasinated. His I have a dream speech was nothing short of totall inspiration. I am a white female. MLK saw what happened to John Kennedy and he knew that the stinking white boy in this country was not going to grow up anytime soon. Look at them today .....now the boy is trying to prevent people of color from voting with the ID crap. Unfortunatley I live in one of the stinking States that is doing this and Gov. Brownback is leading the way. MLK was very consistent and insistent with his values and beliefs that all are created equal. I believe he would have supported the Gay Rigtht movement but probably would not have Marched for it.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  17. augustghost

    Who cares what he thought

    January 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  18. mag

    wow. of all the stories to run on MLK day, this is what CNN decides to do. wow.

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

      Didn't you know CNN turns everything into a gay issue?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  19. Geoffrey Dudley, Sr.

    Why does the GLBT community feel like it has a right to put words in Kings mouth about their efforts to make their lifestyle equal African Americans struggle.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  20. Roberto

    Born black or white is not by choice. If a person chose to be gay and life a lowly rotten life.. its his/her choice. Don't mix race with a retarded choice some people make to be gay.

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

      Choice? I bet you struggled with that choice, hmm?

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

      not everyone chooses to be gay

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

      some people are born some people are made

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

      Hmmm, let me think. What sane person would "choose" an orientation that exposed him to ridicule, deadly diseases and the mindless hatred of bigots? Oh yeah a "retarded" person, right?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:15 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?"

      People don't choose to be gay idiot. All the major world organizations have gone or record stating being gay is not a choice, it can't be voluntarily changed and it's not a mental illness. Prejudice likes yours is a disgrace to this country.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • keeth

      Choice? Prove it.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Teddytoy

      Roberto.. when did you make that choice? Being gay is the way you were born It is determined by your genes .. not some wild religious cults beliefs... Bigotry is a choice however and is condemned by Christ .. who by the way Never condemned gays.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • sam

      Roberto, we know your retardation was not your choice; it was that blow to the head you took when your mom accidentally let you drop onto the floor in the gas station restroom when she was giving birth. I'm sorry she didn't even realize she was pregnant, or that she didn't know who the father was, but don't take it out on the rest of the world like this.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Joe

      Roberto, you seem to have an awful lot of hate in you. That doesn't help you, or anyone else on this planet we all share.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:46 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.