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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. Y'all disgusting

    all you gays need to go back to the gay country you came from: california!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Matt Damon

      California IS a country, so I am dealing with an intellectual elite, but 99% of california is made up of rednecks, christians, and mexicans.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • PhillyWilly

      The #1 gay state, as everyone already knows, is Texas.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  2. Matt Damon

    MLK: " So you are telling me that my efforts are going to result in Kobe Bryant and Jay Z? F%$k. Ok shut it all down. Stop. Stop. Stop."

    January 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  3. Laurie

    And we know that CNN is one of the greatest advocates of this behavior and hardly miss a day promoting it.

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

      Maybe this is just a platform for bigots to spout off.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  4. Paulie

    Dr. MLK was a Pastor in a church so no he did not feel that gays deserved civil rights. I am not sure how he would feel about it today however. Especially if he was involved in politics and running for office.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  5. toppgunnery

    Incidentally was Marvin Gaye?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  6. Matt Damon

    Racism doesn't come from ignorance. I cant tell you how much effort and research it took to realize that whites are floating in a sea of human garbage.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  7. Craig

    John, your article is absurd. The first four mini paragraphs, ending with, “You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.” illustrate clearly that Dr. King thought that the boy had a "problem." The reason you are unable to see that is because your are unwilling to face the truth.
    Also, I am not surprised; I guess because CNN has such poor standards, that they just let you go on and on with irrelevant points that completely contradict your own opening statement. You can't even understand what you yourself are writing and your article IS proof of that. But then again, lies or misperceptions are always mixed with something that makes them appealing.
    My question is doesn't anyone read your work before it is published?

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

      Well with views like this I'm going to go ahead and teeter out on this limb and assume you didn't do all that well in reading comprehension. MLK mentions a problem in his quote, true. But I think it's just as likely that he's referring to the writer's 'problem' of wanting to hide his true nature from his parents, those individuals that are supposed to support and protect him when no one else will. Idiots. You just sit and read whatever the hell you want, regardless of what is actually written. But you've been doing it with the bible for years, why stop now? P.S. – Leave my country.

      January 17, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  8. metrowebservices@gmail.com

    Just read his own words: “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.”

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

      When you read that quote it was probably about 40 years ago. How much further we have come with science.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  9. RCM

    Really? All that Dr. King fought for and died for and this is what we spend today discussing? Really?

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

      Exactly. Instead of speculating wildly about what some people think that the Reverend Doctor MIGHT have said about a topic he hardly addressed, perhaps we should focus on the things he did say and write about the topics he chose to address at great length.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Tommy

      Not really. I wouldn't take this writing seriously. The gay commuinity can be so self centered and so self-involved that they just have to make everything about them. Predictable and laughable.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • sam

      Unlike d!cks named Tommy, who are never self involved; just smug.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  10. Daniel D

    I'm surprised this article doesn't mention another MLK friend and advisor Billy Strayhorn who was also openly gay. Strayhorn was also a close friend of Duke Ellington's and wrote the song Take the A-train. I think MLK would have pushed for gay rights, but of course, can't say with any certainty.

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

      Billy Staghorn was GAYE???

      January 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • PhillyWilly

      what about Sir Elton John?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  11. MyNameIsFabbio

    Who cares?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  12. gerald

    real strech here...but no REAL comparison. It's actually insulting to MLK, and everybody who remembers him, to try and make one.

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

      Mr. Gerald is exactly correct.

      Absolutely nobody can say how the Reverend Doctor King would think now 44 years after his death. Without a doubt, the thinking and ideas of this intelligent and educated, thinking man would have evolved. But we dare not speculate as to how they may have evolved.

      It is disrespectful of him to put words into his mouth 44 years after his death.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  13. freedog

    That which violates the immutable laws of nature, destroys it.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  14. toppgunnery

    as I gayze at the lips of MLK in the photo, I think ht might have been gayz himself!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  15. melissa

    Thank you so much for this truly enlightening article. Now is the time for the people of the world to begin to love themselves and one another and put an end to the hatred and bigotry that has diseased our planet for centuries. Thank you Dr. King for your passion , bravery and courage to lead the world toward love and equality for all. It is an honor to honor you today and a blessing for me as a human being on this planet to be able to feel, learn and truly embody your message of love for all creatures created on this earth.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  16. Curtis

    People are stupid and so is this topic.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Matt

      Your comment is empty and meaningless, and it's stupid to you only because it doesn't directly impact you.

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

      pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot

      January 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  17. Eric

    The Bible is pretty straight forward about it. 'Slaves must adhere to their masters'.

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

      The Bible outlines a very specific system of slavery. It also, for example, says that all slaves must be freed every seven years. No system of slavery in recent history has followed the biblical guidelines.

      The Bible does not mandate slavery only that if man chooses to have slavery that he must follow the biblical rules for it. Man is free to decide that he doesn't want that in his society and not use it.

      The Bible also does not promote slavery. It contains no examples of slavery being a good thing.

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

      Chuck,

      Wishful thinking won't change a thing. The Bible CONDONES slavery.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Snow

      Oh gee chuck.. what do you call this ..

      Leviticus 25:44-46 (NRSV)

      As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • PhillyWilly

      The bible is a book of fairy tales.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Mike

      It also doesn't say there be slaves to a particular race...find a hobby.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  18. Matt Damon

    Thinking that ni&&ers are equal to whites is kind of gay so he must be okay with it.

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

      You need to seek help for your low self-esteem issues.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Stormfront

      True. Look at Detroit.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Observer

      Matt,

      Education is slowly wiping out bigotry. Get some.

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

      see ya in hell!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  19. George

    These h.o.m.os.exuals are trying to pollute the moral message of MLK who was first and foremost a man of God. There is absolutely no moral equvalence between people who were discrimminated against purely for the color of their skin and h.o.m.o.s.exuals who are demanding special rights because they are unable to control their immoral behavior.

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

      Please define "special rights", do you mean the same rights afforded to hetero couples? That doesn't sound "special" to me, it sounds more like equality.

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

      "they are unable to control their immoral behavior."

      That's funny since most whites back in the day thought the same thing about African tribes and African people, now they have equal rights. The experts in psychology disagree with you by the way. Gays partnershops deserve the same civil rights as straights.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • bigot

      whatever....ni..gg...a

      January 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Observer

      Speaking of controlling immoral behavior, Paul in the Bible said it's better for men not to have s-x with women, but if they can't control their behavior, they should get married.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Joe Expert

      We are talking about the man who banged a lot of women other than his wife aren't we. As for God, he tortured and killed a lot of babies in the flood associated with Noah's Ark. God is a homicidal maniac who should have died a long time ago.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      George, i think i saw you making out with a gay guy today. dont hate who you are.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • metrowebservices@gmail.com

      MLK Agreed! Ask the young boy in the article.

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

      I think these thoughts in my head, so they must be right. I just know I'm right and that feeling is all I need!

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

      J Edgar Hoover and Nixon hated Dr. King, and both of them were fruitcakes.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  20. Stormfront

    People need to stop worshipping MLK. He was an abusive, womanizing monkey who went on coke binges, hired white blonde h-o-o-k-e-r-s to beat up on and then use and toss, and was a massive plaigerizer. Legally, he's not even a "dr" because of plaigerizing. There is no excuse to have a holiday for this giant steamy pile while two of our greatest presidents (Washington and Lincoln) have to share a day and call it "Presidents day"

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

      Your name says it all. Is there anything you are not afraid of?

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

      You're a fool monsier

      January 16, 2012 at 4:57 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.