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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. bob

    This never ending CNN gay agenda is completely uncalled for! Each and every day CNN bombards its reading with unsensical gay bs tied into mainstream stories! this story, in particular, is a useless POS...

    January 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • cbinal

      Totally agree! They know this issue can fill a blog.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Teddytoy

      Kind of like the GOP agenda or the religious agenda of hate on FOX huh?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Larry

      Absolutely! For starters, gay people are not a "race" of people. It has never been proven medically that being gay is genetic. It's a CHOICE. The right to have "rights" does not go to the PAC group that screams the loudest.
      As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, and not a PAC group, a liberal President, NPR, or anyone else will change my conviction to believe in what is true and right and moral.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Jim tom

      Larry, please do me a favor and choose to be gay for a couple days.....What's that? You can't? Very interesting. I guess you're in the same boat as me. I'm straight, and it would literally be impossible for me to choose to be gay. I can't make myself be attracted to other man. Guess what that means? IT'S NOT A CHOICE! There, I put it in caps to help you understand it.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • cbinal

      @Teddy I'm a conservative, Christian, who most of the time votes Republican, but, I wouldn't know what FOX reports because I don't watch them. Do you? I usually make up my own mind instead of letting news people do it for me.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Teddytoy

      @larry.. so you are a fox fanatic... If you follow your bible so closely.. I hope you don't shave nor wear any mixed fabrics nor eat shrimp, lobster or pork, and your wife bathes in the river every 20 days. Those are all the same sin as being gay according to the Old testament.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • cbinal

      @Jim tom so you are saying just being attracted to the opposite makes you gay? Not acting upon the attraction?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • cbinal

      I'm attracted to alcohol but never tried it does that make me an alcoholic?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  2. cbinal

    @Keeth – Prove it? What are you 5?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  3. Dan Jones

    This column is ignorant and purposely blind. Martin Luther King was above all else a Christian who embraced Biblical teachings. It was his conviction in God that drove him and regulated his life, his conduct, and his opinions. The Bible doesn't pull any punches about the gay life style. It places it right alongside fornication, adultery, stealing, and murder. The good news for gays is that no one is asking them to embrace or even agree with the Bible or any other religion. The only glitch is if the Bible happens to be true, if there is a God and the Bible does indeed represent him. Then and only then will they have a problem

    January 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Observer

      Dan,

      The Bible also says that people who divorce and remarry are committing adultery, but let's IGNOR that. Let's also ignor that there are FAR FAR MORE Christians guilty of adultery than there are total number of gays and let's just pick on the gays.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Joe Expert

      After all Hitler was a Christian and Nazi Germany was a Christian nation. The KKK is another famous Christian organization. Perhaps you might want to back off a bit on how great Christianity is.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • SurRy

      ...eating shrimp, men cutting their hair at the temples, wearing mixed fabrics, eating pork, yadda, yadda, yadda.... Come out of the darkness and into the light my friend...

      January 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  4. eric

    Well since he was a Reverend I doubt he would be for gays at all. In fact I'm pretty sure he would think their an abomination. But i mean this article is just pushing more of CNNS left wing agenda on America so who cares? The fact is the man was a hero in the struggle for civil rights.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • sam

      Reverend by name only, based on some of his behavior. So it doesn't really matter what he thought.

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

      Bayard Rustin helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Council and was also a baptist. You can be gay and Christian you bigot.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  5. Nosmo King

    I'm sure MLK thought gays were a pain in the as-s

    January 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  6. Mom of 4

    MLK would have been pro-life. He would have recognized the slaughter of unborn black children through abortion and been appalled. He would not have ignored the truth of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who was a racist, pro-Hitler and a bigot.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • what?

      4's about 3 too many from the sounds of it. plug it up and stop breeding before the stupidity spreads further

      January 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Martin

      Don't forget: If you ever get tired of the smell, all you have to do is pull your head out of it...

      January 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Observer

      "Planned parenthood" is also a concept that has NOTHING to do with the racist beliefs of Sanger today.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  7. jesse

    what if everyone on this earth were gay? then it seems to me that the human race would be extinct. to me that answers the question right there as to if being gay is bad or good. is it good to make the human race extinct?

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

      jesse,

      Gays and lesbians can reproduce. Please take a class in Biology 101 or else read "Biology for Dummies".

      January 16, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Jim tom

      Jesse, think about what your'e saying. Your argument makes no sense. What if everyone on earth were sterile? The same thing would happen. According to you, we should shun sterile people and deny them rights.

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

      But, ever human does not need to make the race exist. Some don't for many reasons. A person is gay because that's the way it is. You can say, there is no proof. But there is. Every gay person was born that way and are intented to be that way. That's it.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Michael

      If they think like you, then yes.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Martin

      If there were any risk of the human race becoming extinct for lack of reproducing, then your argument might make some sense-nah, not even then...

      January 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  8. Suzanne

    Who cares what MLK thought about gay rights?
    Does it matter what he though about the gay rights movement 50! years ago?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • ben

      considering he was probably gay I think it matters.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Martin

      Really, Ben? MLK's detractors accuse him of being a womanizer...

      January 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  9. CJ

    Love the intelligent comments left here. MLK most likely would support anyone's struggle for equal rights but I agree that he probably wouldn't march per se. People don't choose to be gay @Roberto. Love that as a minority you CHOOSE to show your ignorance here. Every minority has a struggle @Geoffrey, don't speak as though African Americans have it harder than any other minority.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  10. Teddytoy

    Why are so many straights so terrified of gay people? Gays don't riot, don't terrorize, torture and bully like straight people do. Christ never mentioned gays nor did he condemn them. Which means that if you are a christian you will accept them and love them as he would. Christ said that the old testament laws were no more but that the new law was to love god and love all as yourself. So if you call yourself a christian you would accept what Christ said. RIght?
    What Christ did condemn is hatred and bigotry as well as the main cause of marriage problems.. divorce.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • eric

      I'm pretty sure Jesus would not support gay marriage. I mean just because people don't agree with your life style doesn't mean they hate you. I don't understand why gay people need other people to approve of their life style if you like being gay go be gay fine. But you can't argue that it follows the bible.

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

      oh really? where's your proof? We've got 2 gays living a couple of houses down that are the absolute worst neighbors!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Teddytoy

      @eric... first it is no more a lifestyle than being a different race is. Second being gay or gay marriage was never mentioned by Christ. Only man added that. This is not a country founded by religious zealots. It is a country where the law says all are created equal. All should have the same rights not just a few certain ones who "choose" to be straight!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Mark D.

      To Bob....are those 2 gay neighbors the only bad neighbors you have? Have you never had straight neighbors that were bad neighbors?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Dan Jones

      Teddy... You have obviously never read the Bible, Jesus clearly stated that every gay person would go to hell. Just like liars, adulterers, and fornicators. Being gay isn't the greatest sin, it is just a sin like so many others. How does sin work, first it tells you that this is who you are, and that being this way you have to do accordingly. People are naturally sinful, no one has to teach us to lie or be selfish or perverted. The only real danger is that gays want an upgrade in status. They want God to change his position instead of them changing theirs. It won't happen. Man kind will be judged according to the law of God, not man. Gays can change the laws in every nation and God won't change in the slightest.

      Life is short, judgement is unavoidable, and eternity is long. This goes for everyone. We would be wise to reach for the high goal of living to please God.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Teddytoy

      @Dan.. I have read and studied the bible for many years... You obviously have not. Find any words where Christ condemns a gay person.. there aren't any. BTW whose 'version' of the bible are you reading.. some english kings? or the one re written by the popes?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Observer

      Dan Jones,

      If you are really so concerned about sin, why are you here and not trying to help the FAR GREATER number of Christians who commit adultery?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Mark D.

      To Eric...Eric, most gay people don't give a flip about what others think...but, there are some that do. But, question, what if others were always down on you, always telling you were wrong, you were going to hell, etc. for loving your girlfriend or your wife or shunned you for holding the other's hand in public. Try and experiment....find a male friend of yours and walk down the street holding his hand (don't worry, all of us on here know you're not gay)....but, walk down the street....watch the others around you, look at how they stare at you like you're doing something wrong, listen to see if any of them make comments about you and your friend walking down the street, see if they're nice comments or not. If you do this, you'll have walked in their shoes...thus, you might have a better understanding of how it might "feel" to be gay and why some people out there look, even yearn for acceptance.

      As for going by the "word" of the Bible....go back and read where it says a man can have his wife stoned to death if he "thinks" she's cheating on him (I think this would be called murder today) of that the parents can have the children killed for not obeying their parents. Now...we understand the Bible the way we "ourselves" interpret it. Who is anyone to say someone else is wrong in their interpretation? If God came down and spoke the same words to 10 people standing side by side....they each going to interpret it a different way. Again, God gives us free will. And for those others out there in this blog, who do believe the Bible word for word....I believe there's a quote in there, that goes something like this, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Now...the way I interpret that, I believe God is telling each person to be careful who and what they judge, because God may hold those same people to those same standards of judgement that they themselves have judged others. That's a slippery slope if I've ever seen one.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Mark D.

      @Dan Jones....Dan, to use your own words, "Jesus clearly stated that every gay person would go to hell. Just like liars, adulterers, and fornicators". I'm gay, so according to you, I'm going to hell. Fair enough if that's what you believe. But, have you NEVER been a liar, an adulterer, a fornicator, etc.? If you have even once, you've sinned. I believe that means you're going to hell as well. Does this mean I'll see you there? Just asking.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  11. Mark D.

    Has anyone ever thought that maybe King's dream didn't die with him, that it has been kept alive through his now late wife (who probably knew him better than anyone else...including his children), through his children, through his partners in his ministry, etc.. Of course, all of their views may differ....but, who and what doesn't differ from anything and anyone else on this earth? I think that's called "free will"....something even God allows. So, let them debate this until the end of time...I for one think that he would have probably stood up for "Gay Rights"....and I'm really the only person I need to worry about.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  12. cheekbrown

    We can only speculate about whether Dr. King would embrace gay rights. I believe that he would fight for all people, including gay people.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  13. montrese

    well MLK lived his life according to the bible.He brought us together by opening eyes so that we look and see one another as equal. His speeches were not about life styles. We need to focus on what he stood for and not get things twisted on life styles

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

      if he lived his life according to the bible then obviously he would have been against gays right?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  14. Leucadia Bob

    Bacon! It does the body good!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  15. jerry

    MLKj here, Some people have been asking how I feel about gays and if I'd include them in my "Dream". To answer the skeptics, no I didn't include gays, after all I em a Christian who believes in what a Magic Man in the sky tells me and he said gays aren't cool.

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

      It never said in the bible that being gay is wrong. It never even said there was a hell. That is coming from todays world and besides theres plenty of gay christian priests

      January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • claybigsby

      Eric: do you even read the bible???? Jesus you christians dont even read what you believe in...

      Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. - Leviticus 18:22

      Everyone will exist eternally either in heaven or hell
      Daniel 12:2,3; Matthew 25:46; John 5:28; Revelation 20:14,15.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • sam

      That's ok, clay, they have us to read it for them.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  16. yo mama

    Odd choice for an article , however ..... it is interesting. His family says he would have been a supporter of Gay Rights and I would have to think there right . They knew him better than anyone.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  17. stan

    If you take a poll from a Catholic congregation and 25% are pro choice, does that mean that 25% of those polled are anti-catholic?

    So if I have many close gay friends but feel that marriage is between a man and a woman does that mean that I am anit-gay?

    Just because a person does not support the entire agenda of the gay-lesbian movement does not mean that they are anti LGBT. It just means that they do not support the entire agenda. I beleive all should be free to live life as they see it, but marriage is between a man and a woman. All are free to marry and procreate, but if you chose to not do so, that is your right. I would support procecution of someone who committed a crime against a person for the sole reason that the person is gay. I do not think a person should be fired from a job because they are gay. I have gay neighbors, gay friends, gay teachers. I do not consider myself to be anti-gay.

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

      Why is marriage only between men and women? Who died and made you boss?

      January 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • DeVita

      About procreation,

      Just because someone is gay does not mean they are sterile and unable to bear children. There are also many married couples, male and female mix, who choose not to have children. Should those people, who make that choice be barred and stripped of their rights?

      As for the Marriage,

      What you need to see is the separation of Church and State. Through Marriage the State gives added incentive and some further rights to couples. It is those rights, -such as being with a lover if they are dying in the hospital- that the gay populace wants and fights for.

      Though in my personal opinion, Love is Love. There is nothing wrong with loving another soul that has been created by, and blessed with life by God. If I am wrong I will gladly discover this on the day that God will pass judgment on me. But I for one, will not stand for these judgments to be passed by mankind.

      But as the saying goes "To err is human, to forgive is divine".

      --------

      January 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  18. wisdom4u2

    Why post some BS like this on MLK's day? It's none of our business what MLK thought about the 'Gay' lifestyle...hell, his battle for the people of color's equality of life cost him his life; So, I'm sure he didn't have time to even discuss or ponder what people choose to do with their affections, nor did he care at that point.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  19. OregonLady

    I admire Dr. King very much. I grew up in the deep south, I know what racism is. I have been an
    AIDS activist over 12 years of my life. I support equal rights across the board.

    I'm sorry CNN, but this subject did not belong here today. Today is Dr. King's day. He earned it.

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

      You are so right. I am gay and do not think this belongs here on the day we honor Dr. King. Regardless of what he thought or would have thought about gay rights, he was a pioneer for peace and harmony among people.

      January 16, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  20. Eric

    Who cares what MLK thought about gays? What did Ghandi think about illegal aliens? What did Socrates think about pork stew? This is such an irrelevant article and diminishes the importance of MLK and his accomplishments.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Pointless1

      You care enough to have read it and comment.. You're a waste and you know it...

      January 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Brian

      @ Eric, you literally made me laugh out loud. Thank you, I needed that!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • cbinal

      Socrates probably thought, "Mmmmm Beef Stew."

      January 16, 2012 at 4:49 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.