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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. William Marlowe

    This article is inappropriate. The Civil Rights movement was about about the equality of Man (& Women) and about how everyone has the same inalienable rights and that bigotry and racism can no longer exclude an entire segment of society.

    If you are Gay it is not the same as being Black. You can't see the color 'Gay' on the outside on your skin, you are not segregated all the time with 'Straight Only' signs for bathrooms and no one is stopping you from voting because you are Gay.

    Please show some respect.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • michael

      Respect for what? Your race is not the only one that needs to be respected, nor was the only one that had bad stuff happen to them.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Woggy

      They don't have any, they want to sully Dr. Kings name by saying he would support gay cross dressing trash.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • sam

      I love how you Randomly Capitalize Words. It's hot.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Patricia

      "you are not segregated all the time"

      Yes they are when it comes to marriage. They are denyed these rights in their partnerships.

      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 4:32 pm |
    • beeunit

      I agree. Why write an article like this? Gay people are discriminated against, but what does this article have to prove? It's almost like they are trying to turn someone who was great into a biggot.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Pablo LA

      So you want gays to suffer as much as African Americans suffered before getting their rights?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Martin

      Why don't you show some respect and recognize that gays have been reviled and persecuted for centuries merely for how they choose to love and show that love physically-and that is WRONG!!!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Linguist

      With respect, injustice is not a contest. It isn't a question of which group has suffered more or in which ways they have been mistreated.

      Gay people have lost their jobs, been kicked out of the military, been attacked, even killed, because of the strong animus many in our society harbor against them.

      Within my lifetime, they used to subject gay people to electroshock therapy to "cure" them.

      Gay couples have been separated because the Immigration Service doesn’t acknowledge their relationship. I have seen the pain that policy causes. Gay parents have lost custody of their own children when other family members have challenged their “fitness” to be parents in court. That too has created unimaginable pain and suffering.

      Injustice isn't a contest. We live in a society dedicated to the ideal that we are all equal under the law. So long as you are free to marry the person of your choice while gay people are not, that ideal is not being met.

      A just society doesn't quibble over the details of injustice. Instead, it works on the problem and strives to make the society more just. For all.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  2. Woggy

    Being gay is a mental illness, it should not be supported.

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

      The tens of thousands of professionals at APA think you don't know what you are talking about. lol. Try again.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Duh

      "Being gay is a mental illness"

      The psychological experts around the world disagree with you, so obviously you formed your opinion not based on facts. There are over 150,000 experts alone just in the APA. LOL!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • sam

      Woggy, I'm sorry your boyfriend hasn't found your prostate yet. Find a nice boy who can, and everything will be different.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Woggy

      I have a girlfriend thank you very much. You disgust me.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Observer

      Woggy,

      You have a girlfriend, but not a real knowledge of psychology or psychiatry. Why not do some research?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • sam

      Are you SURE it's a girl? Have you checked? Would you know the difference? Does she/heshe know what a d!ck you are?

      Also, you post a lot about cross dressing on here. It's becoming clear that you're into that.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Linguist

      With respect, so you support mistreating the mentally ill?

      I find that really hard to justify, morally.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  3. jellylee2020

    MLK is long gone. He is neither a saint nor perfect. He contributed a lot in the civil movement of certain group and consequentially raised awareness of civil rights for all in the process. What he thought about gay people is irrelevant at best and one cannot expect him alone to break the stigma of societal norm of his era (apparently many still live in that era). So please let's honor him for all the good deeds he has done instead of exploiting his memory in an agenda to divide.

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

      I disagree. What is surprising is that King in his time, and as a Christian minister, was not hostile to gays. I am convinced he would be fully supportive of gay rights, as his wife was. It's his daughter who has it all wrong.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  4. Gary

    As a gay, white male I feel it is very relevant to compare the "gay rights equality" issue to the "human rights equality" issue that MLK died for. I do, however, feel it is moot to try and state either way how he personally felt about gays. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a different plight than we do. No one can fault him for that. I personally like to believe that he would have understood our struggles and supported the inclusion of the glbt community, in his fight for equal rights. To those posting simple grunts and groans or using this article to voice their hate and ignorance, I feel sorry for you. You are truly wearing your character, or total lack of, on your sleeve.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  5. Bill

    King's (lack of) support for gay rights at that time is very similar to the way that gay marriage activists refuse to comment when asked if they support plural marriage. Morally, they probably should support the polygamists, but they serve their own agenda above all, and don't want it derailed by considering whether they really think that anyone who wants to get married should be able to.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  6. j mann

    Geez, what a weird article. Just focus on his accomplishments, don't speculate. His response to the young boy was very benign, especially for that time, when there was no such word as gay, at least as it is used today. He gave his life to free his people – why say anything that takes away from that.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  7. Bob Kurtz

    Dr. King ignored gay rights as much as he could. He did not see it as part of his battle, yet he got support from the gay
    rights community.

    Now what would have he done if there had been a few pro gay rights signs in one of his marches? I think he would have
    suggested they get their own march and not diffuse his issues and his followers.

    To put it simply, it was mostly a one issue (Black rights) civil rights movement. Not even much for woman's rights, but I would suspect Dr. King was far more supportive of woman's rights than gay rights.

    Bottom line he was for 'human' rights, and black rights were his cause.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  8. Thinking7

    CNN – I emplore you – please give up this gay agenda. It's so annoying to see gay articles day after day taking precedence over real news.

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

      CNN let's ignorant bigots comment, too.

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

      How's it being a bigot? We are exhausted by it all. Thanks to all the in your face vocalization things have taken a step backwards. Own it.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  9. michael

    Black people want civil right, but they dont want gays to be involved with "MLK" day???? WTH is that about! Makes a lot of sense. @ Roberto...you are ridiculous! Roberto why dont you act like an adult, or worry about your own pitiful life! Actually if I were you I would run to my mom as fast as I could and slap her in the damn face for giving birth to you! For all of your gay haters, quit your pitful relationships, find something to look forward to...I dunno maybe a life so you can stop worry about everyone elses!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  10. BlackYowe

    I am not a Gay basher but why is it every day there is a headline on CNN about gay issues these days its kinda odd? I feel like its now a all gay news outlet. I just want to celebrate MLK today.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • anonymous

      coz Cooper is gay

      January 16, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  11. Truthseeker

    How many brothers are on the Down Low?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  12. Cindy

    Our opinions of the gay lifestyle does not matter. We are all give the CHOICE on how we want to live our lives. The only thing that natters is what God has to say and we will know the answer to that and many other questions on Judgement Day.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  13. Kev

    I really don't care what MLK had or has to say about anything. The guy is dead no matter how you look at it. Was he a great man. naw I don't think so. Did he motivate the African Americans yeah he did. Was it for the good maybe. But there is still alot of Blacks who just loves playing the Race Card for whatever reason they seem fit. There is still alot of raciism going on but we have come along way.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  14. DarylB

    What a stupid article to post on MLK Day. Even Fox News has a more appropriate story regarding Dr King than CNN. You should be embarrassed.

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

      agreed...dumbs cnn are

      January 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Chris

      Even as someone who gets frustrated with the over PC nature of MLK day it is totally out of line to put this article out on his day. To be clear MLK was a great hero of the Civil Rights movement. Like all men he had his faults but overall he is a great American. I think MLK's if he would have lived his views would have matured with the struggles he encountered. I think to judge him on 1960's thinking is short sighted. I know many Democrats who support gay right now that did not when I was a kid.

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

    MLK was wrong. gays have an innate tendency. its in the genes. its the hormones. nothing cultural about it.

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

      Excuse me, but I don't think that any of that, certainly not the genetic connection, have been proven.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Snow

      well, then how do you explain these tendencies appearing in the animal world? from penguins to lizards? Were they learning it by watching things on the internet?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  16. hanbybeach

    Thanks for publishing this story. It is a credit to Dr King and his legacy to recognize his inspiration in the pursuit of equality for all people. I'm sure he would be very proud of the progress toward equality for all people, including gays and lesbians. He wouldn't be a hater, he'd show compassion for every single one of us. That's his lasting legacy.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  17. marineace

    This day is to honor Martin Luther King. Once again, CNN totally misses the boat....

    January 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  18. snake

    JUST SAY NO! TO T URD BURGLARS.

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

      Just grow up.

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

      still suffering from low self-esteem issues huh? You do get husbands do it to their wives like that too right...LOL!

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

      .....

      That would require thinking things through, so your answer is likely "no".

      January 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • PEB

      I thought it was fudge packers?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  19. keeth

    Whether he fully supported gays or not can never be truly answered, but we can say with a much larger measure of certainty that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be horrified by the hateful rhetoric that has been spewed in his name by his own daughter, Bernice.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  20. claybigsby

    "Woggy

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

    neither is the bible yet it is crammed down their throats.

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

      By whom??

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

      I am an athiest I don't believe in the bible.

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

      It's crammed down their throats and elsewhere

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

      Don't be a chump, the cramming part is half the fun.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • claybigsby

      By whom?? Maybe by their parents? or teachers? or friends? or friends parents? anyone preaching christianity that has the influence on a child's life. then scroll through this blog and see the hatred/fear mongering combination against non-believers. Christians are always preaching about something they really dont know anything about.

      Woggy, I pity you. You really think people like to be discriminated against? You think people have a choice in whether they are gay or not? I know I never sat down and said "hmmmm, I think i am going to be hetro...". Doesnt happen like that. If you think it does, all I can say is do some research on the subject and open your eyes. Who are you to judge what is and isnt Moral?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • PEB

      Oh look Rocky is trying to be funny! Run along Rocky find a schnauzer to carry on with and leave the normal people here to talk.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Gary

      My being gay is very right. God created me to be as such. No matter what you believe I only have God to answer to. I'll meet you in Heaven.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:45 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.