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. Alexa

    Thanks for reminding us of butseks everyday, CNN! Especially on MLK day!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  2. Jason S

    This isn't February yet. Let's keep it that way.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  3. tommy

    Too bad CNN reduces MLK to this!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      I agree. He should be remembered as the plagiarizing, philandering Communist that he was.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  4. mac james

    All of you above are ignorant idiots who should all shut your ugly drooling mouths and go back to the dark caves of idiocy which
    you lurk in; how stupid and deplorable do your thoughts go? Selfish fools!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Mikey

      Don't you really mean below, cause if you are reading messages newest to oldest (like the rest of civilized society) you would not know what people are planning to say!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  5. Omen

    I said what! what in the butt
    I said what! what in the butt

    January 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Observer

      It might be your head.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  6. rob

    Berneice King is a total closet case. Won't be long now till she's outed as a lesbian.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  7. Robert

    Honestly, who cares? You can't appreciate what he did? Just have to ask, so what did he do for gays? What a twisted headline on this special day. Reading the news these days makes me sick, not the news, the way it's written.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Mikey

      CNN trying to start some line of thinking where it never was. The media is driven by frenzy, we feed into it when we comment about inane writings. I wonder how long it took these geniuses to come up with this bizarre story. It really diminishes what a great man MLK was.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • p41

      Amen to that.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  8. Phil

    What would've MLK thought about the new iPhone 4S? This should be the next article in this FASCINATING look into something that absolutely no one knows, or cares about.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Chuck

      An excellent point, Mr. Phil, and well-made.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Billy

      There's a Tim Tebow joke in here somewhere...

      January 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • p41

      Now that was funny!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  9. brian hughes

    This John Blake writer has written numerous articles that have racist undertones on CNN. Many of his articles centered around Barack Obama. In fact, just try to Google this individual and you will see the character of the writer CNN allowed.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  10. jesse

    he probably hated them just like most of us do 🙂

    January 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  11. amac

    MLK did say (and I'm paraphrasing) "Don't judge me by the color of my skin; judge me by the content of my character." I'm certain that had he lived to see a gay rights movement he would have been marching right alongside them as he did for minorities, the poor and oppressed, because it would have been a civil rights matter for him; a matter of justice for, as he said, ALL of God's people.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Chuck

      But what are those "civil rights?"

      My GUESS is that the idea of gay marriage would have been very offensive to the Reverend Doctor King, Baptist minister that he was.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • cbinal

      Yeah justice "All of God's people". Just like in Sodom?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Mikey

      I concur, this thing does not fly well in the South....funny how a tiny fraction of society seems to occupy some much space in the talking heads world. Who cares and no one knows what MLK thinks. Another riveting CNN story that makes me want to throw up!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  12. enricorosan

    I don't know if MLK would have supported Gay rights (there were different moral values back then) but because he was a compassionate man of God he would have never hated them, criticized or condemned them publicly.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Porky the Pig

      Then why did he CHEAT ON HIS WIFE?


      January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • do2

      You need to read the Bible.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Chuck

      I'm sure that Mr. Enricorosan is correct. But there is a profound difference between not hating and approving of.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  13. N2it

    Who really cares what MLK thought about it. It is not up to him in the very end...it is what our Creator, God Almighty thinks about it, is what is important.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Mikey

      I agree 100%, great comment

      January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Chuck

      Mr. N2it is entirely correct.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  14. Call_The_Bluff

    ...What did MLK think about gay people?...
    Who give a sh*#$$t ?

    January 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  15. malibu123

    The things that liberals ponder..........

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

      . . . . while conservatives ponder what language Americans are speaking.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Steve O

      If only conservatives pondered once in a while...

      January 16, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  16. Tim Broderick

    To discount MLK because of how he may have felt about gay rights would be like discounting Jefferson b/c he was a slave owner. Both men were visionaries, progressives, and furthered our country and culture. Neither were perfect. None of us are. If we are looking for perfection in role models and "pillars of history", we're going to come up empty handed.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  17. Y'all disgusting

    who gives a god d4mn about the gays? sick and tired of hearing about those gay freaks in the news all the time. our whole system of laws shouldn't be revised because of a small group of people with a bizarre social lifestyle.


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


      So you are here instead of on the business blogs? LOL. Take your own adivce.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • sam

      Uh huh...you're so sick of it that this is your second comment on the article so far. Riveted?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  18. Porky the Pig



    January 16, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • p41

      Same thing Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton, and all other caucasian males think about it.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  19. M

    Does it matter?

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

      Who cares....There are more important things to talk about right now...Earth to CNN...Lets talk about the possitive things King did and is well known for....I'm so tired of the Gay rights issue being elevated higher than more important issues period. My guess is that the writer of this article is Gay and wants to be recognized for it. Who is this article for...yourself (writer) or for readers who yearn to be enlightened by King's possitive words and encouragement.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Observer


      It was likely intended as a thought-provoking article and over 1,000 comments shows they were right. Please use a spelling checker next time, I'm POSITIVE.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  20. Porky the Pig

    Really, who gives a sheet?


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

      Pigs are filthy animals.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, they aren't, actually. They're not filthy, and they're fairly intelligent.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:47 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.