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. Nathan Newman

    Pointless column.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  2. Jim tom

    "It is sad that a man would look to a thousand year old book to tell him right from wrong, when the real answers are written in the man's own heart."

    January 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  3. Chuck

    It is disrespectful of the Reverend Doctor King for anyone to try and put words in his mouth 44 years after his death.

    Please allow the Reverend Doctor to rest in peace; don't try and exhume his corpse and prop it up as a ventriloquist's puppet to speak the words you want him to say.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • sam

      Someone wrote an article that's pure conjecture based on what King said/did at the time. Don't get riled enough to post the exact same comment more than once, Chucky.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  4. Tommy

    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. They could never admit that they simply don't know the answer to the question. MLK never made a clear statement or any statements reflecting how he felt and what he believed about the gay community. The writer is just projecting his own desire onto readers and his conclusions have no basis in reality. Again, sort of funny!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • He Cared

      Dr. King chose a woman to be his wife who truly loved people regardless of whom they were as they are all God's children. Therefore, he obviously knew how Coretta S. King felt about gay rights and how she embraced them and never did we hear that they had a rift or a fall-out about it. Therefore, we can safely conclude that Dr. King would have embraced gay rights just as powerfully as Coretta had it not been during a time when to be so open about gay rights for a clergyman, especially one who was black and fighting other problems would have left him open to plenty of criticism and worse. Yet he did say what he did that obviously tells the story that he did not oppose gays or their rights. From his life's story, I don't see how it could get any closer.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • sam

      I can't believe you think a comment you made to somone else was so witty and awesome that you felt you had to make sure it was mosre visible by posting it again on its own. That's a little funny too. You are pretty smug, aren't you.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  5. erica

    I don't think that was on his mind at all during those times. Think about it.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  6. OrangeW3dge

    The most simple doctrine of Equality, means equality for all.
    There is something sinister hidden in your basic premise the Dr. King would have to "take a stance", or qualify, something something that is most purely stated already. Equality of the genders, equality of the races, equality of the religions, and, yes, equality of the person that has different opinion or practice.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Chuck

      Equal in what respect? That is what some are trying to redefine.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You're right, chuck. There are people of religion out there who are trying to define equality by their own specific "holy books". Sadly, there is no proof that any of those holy books are anything more that the writings of very human beings. There is certainly no proof of any god. It is truly appalling that equality is being denied to some on the basis of glorified fairy tales.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • OrangeW3dge

      Equal in the eyes of the law, was the premise at the time, because it was the practise of Governments, such as Alabama, to discriminate between the races. It was the Federal Government that was being asked to intervene and mandate a nation-wide policy (and law). King takes it one step further, applying it to all people as the standard throughout the country.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  7. AlnC

    To those who love truth, we offer a different understanding. Our understanding is not based on media reports but on the Word of God. People are outraged when they hear our message even though this country is founded on freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Why do people get angry when somebody presents their belief? Check out our website http://www.Hear-The-Truth.com

    January 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Which god? Humans have created literally thousands of them through our history. Of course, there's not a shred of proof that any of them exist, so I suppose one god is just as good as another.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  8. Emcee Ice Cold

    MLK got a little Santorum on the hang down from time to time.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  9. Y'all disgusting

    why do we even have a mlk day anyhow? where is the slanty eyed hero for the chinks to make a holiday for? furthermore, where's the white man's hero? i think it should be bruce lee day for the chinks and john wayne day for the whites.

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

      And some right-wingers claim that they don't have racists on their side.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Chuck

      Your lack of understanding is profound. The Reverend Doctor King was a great American, not owned by any one group. He left our nation - tragically way to early - a significantly better place for all.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      You are so dumb...you are really really dumb. Fo real though!! Your Media Access Control address has now been tagged as 'Racist'! You're in their system now, boy!!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • OregonMan

      Are you serious? What about a "cleaner" for narrow minded people like you. Remember "land of the free"? You're what is wrong with America.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  10. Observer

    CNN has likely presented this provocative story to speculate on what a leading rights advocate from the past would do about the leading rights issue of today.

    People should stop getting uptight about it. It's meant to be thought-provoking. Too many people aren't thinking.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  11. Bruce from Ann Arbor

    Thanks for the interesting article; I'd been thinking about this question earlier today. It looks like King had views about gays that were fairly conventional for his time, and he was unfortunately assassinated before he was forced to confront the modern gay liberation movement for equal rights. Hard to know exactly how he would have adapted, but it is certainly clear that his bedrock principles were easily reconcilable with providing gays a place at the civil rights table. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • OrangeW3dge

      I don't think it "is hard to know" what he would say, unless you didn't know of him. He spoke of the civil rights of all people, and, yes, even the white people. King was different, he preached peace and co-operation, unlike the Panthers that advocated armed retribution. Some people, however, can't see a difference because of their own hate-blinded heart.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  12. toppgunnery

    Bigots and trigots can beat their meats all over this platfrom and shoot off alll over the walls...I don't give a rip!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  13. Sean

    Where have all our civil rights LEADERS gone?? All we have now is Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who only stump when it benefits them...true Civil Rights Leaders championed more than their own cause, but the cause of many...

    January 16, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  14. Reality

    (only for the "newbies")

    Dear MLK, (posthumously)

    "Abrahamics" like yourself believe that their god created all of us and of course that includes the g-ay members of the human race. Also, those who have studied ho-mo-se-xuality have determined that there is no choice involved therefore ga-ys are ga-y because god made them that way.

    To wit:

    o The Royal College of Psy-chiatrists stated in 2007:

    “ Despite almost a century of psy-choanalytic and psy-chological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heteros-exual or hom-ose-xual orientation. It would appear that s-exual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of ge-netic factors and the early ut-erine environment. Se-xual orientation is therefore not a choice.[60] "

    "Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab state in the abstract of their 2010 study, "The fe-tal brain develops during the intraut-erine period in the male direction through a direct action of tes-tosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hor-mone surge. In this way, our gender identi-ty (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and s-exual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender ident–ity or s-exual orientation."[8

    See also the Philadelphia Inquirer review “Gay Gene, Deconstructed”, 12/12/2011. Said review addresses the following “How do genes associated with ho-mose-xuality avoid being weeded out by Darwinian evolution?”

    Of course, those g-ays who belong to Abrahamic religions abide by the rules of no adu-ltery or for-nication allowed.

    And because of basic biology differences said monogamous ventures should always be called same-s-ex unions not same-se-x marriages.

    to wit:

    From below, on top, backwards, forwards, from this side of the Moon and from the other side too, gay se-xual activity is still mutual masturbation caused by one or more complex se-xual differences. Some differences are visually obvious in for example the complex maleness of DeGeneres, Billy Jean King and Rosie O'Donnell.

    Yes, heteros-exuals practice many of the same "moves" but there is never a doubt who is the female and who is the male.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • sam

      This is the second time you've posted this crap today, and I'm asking again: what about pegging? No?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  15. Motgut

    HAHAHAHAHA!!!! 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 4:58 pm |
  16. woodrow

    We cannot be second guessing what MLK might think about gay people because no matter what you conclude, it could be incorrect.

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

      Mr. Woodrow is exactly correct.

      It is disrespectful of the Reverend Doctor King for anyone to try and put words in his mouth 44 years after his death.

      Allow the Reverend Doctor to rest in peace and don't try and exhume his corpse and prop it up as a ventriloquist's hand puppet to speak the words you want him to say.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  17. Rickote

    This CNN article is non sense. MLK ideas belong to another era, it is inconsecuential what he thought or publicly said in this issue over 50 years ago. It is like saying that Theodore Roosevelt was against Women for vote in 1901 because he didn't came for it until 10 years later, when people evolved to that point. People evolve, some slower than others as we can see in this forum. Eventually, this idea of if gays can marry will be just as stupid as saying if blacks can marry whites today. But even so, there still will be a few mental challenged having trouble to pass that stage!

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

      "MLK ideas belong to another era, it is inconsecuential what he thought or publicly said in this issue over 50 years ago." thanks for that comment. Very well stated!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  18. JEC

    Are you kidding me? This is what you're focusing on today????? Aren't there about a million other things about him that might be more important?

    January 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Show Understanding

      Typical bigoted response, no doubt from one who would have liked to keep Dr. King in chains still.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  19. SixDegrees

    Seriously – who cares? This is pure speculation that can never be answered one way or the other. Instead of wasting time and space on something so pointless, how about an article describing current day efforts to win civil rights for gays, of which there are plenty to choose from.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  20. frank

    I doubt MLK would have supported gays lol.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • ventg4fun

      I disagree. Even if he wasn't pro-gays at the time, he would've come around later on, had he lived. He wanted equal rights for ALL people. That's just your own bias talking.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:01 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.