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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. honey badger

    I don't give a fck.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Ironicus

      Do you even have a fck to give? That's the real question here.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • honey badger

      If I was a woodchuck, I could chuck a fck, as I have several to give.

      January 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  2. Puzzled

    The background noise is pretty high today. Well, there's always tomorrow when the kids are back in school.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Ironicus

      Yep.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Bill

      But there's still time left today! Sratch your butt......now, sniff your fingers......smells like poop, right? There you have it! You've just had your first gay experience.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  3. Insulted

    I guess MLK Day is a day everyone gets off at CNN, and no one is around to delete the comments of "these people"

    January 16, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • I left some doo doo in your vegetable crisper

      I agree. GIve this a whiff and feel better. *POOT* <---SNIFF IT!!

      January 16, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Ironicus

      That smells like the plastic on my monitor. Not much smell there at all. Try again?

      January 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Ok

      Smell like teen spirit?

      January 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  4. John K

    It's irrelevant what MLK believed about gays and gay rights. What matters is how his legacy is being shaped by current day activists. Once you've fully appropriated the moral gravitas of a religious and civil rights legend, you fully control the modern perception of what that man believed. What the man actually believed (or would believe today) simply doesn't matter.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • smitvict

      Wrong. We always compare the positions and opinions of people from the past against our current day's standards. It is only right that Dr. King should enjoy the same.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Howard

      I Agree with John K.
      Let's say that MLK was not in favor of Gay Rights.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Howard

      I Agree with John K.
      Let's say that MLK was not in favor of Gay Rights.
      Many people evolve. perhaps he would have.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  5. Anne

    So basically MLK thought the same thing about gay people that the entire world did at the time? Is this news?

    "This just in- white Southern plantation owners in the 18th century support slavery!"

    January 16, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Puzzled

      Good post Anne – just what I wanted to say.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Mikey

      Exactly!! I must say though I find it interesting that the people who truly knew him, talked with him, debated him, all agree that he would have evolved to support gay rights, however his daughter who did none of these things is the one saying he wouldn't.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Mr Peanut

    Brazil nuts, nig ger toes, what the hell is the differnce.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  7. Bill

    MLK thought gays were stool pushers. They are. Now, he knew that gays seemed to be hiding in all dark corners. Little did he know that gays have a shelf life. Kind of like bread. "Borrowed time" is accurate. Except for the lesbians. They seem to end up ok. Probably because they don't get feces in their urethra. Just the occassional sore on the lip. Nothing an ointment can't take care of. MLK also knew that his knuckles were scraping the ground. Nothing he could do about that.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • partyallthetime

      you are like a genius. I bet you work at Harvaaard, like in the library or sumpin.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Tim

      actually he does work at Harvard.. he's a leaf blower...but attends white power meetings
      at night.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Prometheus

      My-my, Bill! Such anger! It's not good to repress your true feelings. National Coming Out Day is October 11th. You and the rest of the sorry-ass bigots that are sending in their hate mail. But, what you are really angry about is that you aren't good enough to be either black or gay. Hell, the truth is that none of you redneck, white trash will ever even qualify as human.

      January 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Bri

      A**holes do more then pass gas, they TALK....Thanks for confirming this fact BILL

      January 16, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Bill

      Wow, caught four fish with one hook. I used stink bait because I knew Prometheus was near.

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

      Bill,

      Some important things do from time yo time skip a generation.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • magnus

      what the hell are you talking about?

      January 17, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  8. Mike

    Ok.....shouldn't you kids be doing homework or something ?

    January 16, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • partyallthetime

      my dog ate it.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  9. Celebrate James Earl Ray Day instead!!

    MLK wasn't gay he would just hold one in his mouth until the swelling went down.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • teedofftaxpayer

      Must be a good old backward southern boy who supports the republican party.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • peggy

      To teedofftaxpayer,

      I am thinking a similar thought. I am assigning political affiliations with comments and I agree with your assessment.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • David Myers

      Your name has been reported as abuse. Some of us ackually do know history (or at least the government line on history) you fkn bigotted supporter of murder!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:02 am |
  10. demo joseph

    OMG how can people have so much hate. When they look at themselves in the mirror – they must see a devil. Accept change and stop all the hate.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Bob

      Change of Devil standing behind?

      January 16, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  11. Ironicus

    I could certainly do without the "doo-doo" jokes by whatever little kid is running around in here, but that's the internet for you.
    CNN can't quite find the money to address this problem, yet has dozens of interns, staffers, moderators, and other people who manage the rest of the CNN website.
    Is this just a plssing contest where the Belief Blog editors refuse to loosen the reins of power?
    Let them enjoy the doo-doo jokes, then, as I guess they must. I don't and wish CNN would clean out this crappy blog.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Maximus Erectus

      I agree *POOT*

      January 16, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • trigtwit palin... America's favorite tard baby

      ...drool...

      January 16, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Ironicus

      Oh, aren't you cute! Let me just pinch your chubby little cheeks with this hydraulic press! (*crunch*)

      January 16, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  12. palintwit

    Besides hot flatulence, another thing that reminds me of Sarah Palin is a beat up old house trailer on cement blocks with a bent tv antenna.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  13. Disgusted

    I think one of the only people on here who have actually had legitimate comments have been Reality and Brickell Princess! I find it disturbing that his children are so pathetic that they use their father's legacy to further their own agendas and have done all they can to run his legacy into the ground. Still, I find it much more frightening that there are so many overwhelmingly ignorant and bigoted individuals out there who would post assinine comments with even more assinine cover names. I'd like to say something about the fact that this is 2012 and not 1912, but I think it's obvious that idiocy doesn't care about the date.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • I wash my buttplugs in your tea pitcher

      And might I add one thing to that... *POOT* <-smell it BYTCH.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Disgusted

      Thank you for proving my point.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Modern Family is weiner smacking goodness!!

      I like it where the little zipperHead girls watches her two daddys together in shower unloadding their cream corn blasters in one anothers face then pulling her in and both taking a pee in her mouth. Yep...all that GayGoodness!!

      January 16, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Paul

      The comments you are referring to are coming from maladjusted people. It's too bad the board isn't moderated.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Ironicus

      They always get tired after a while and leave. All we can do is wait...

      January 16, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • lol

      Outraged righteousness is always fun to stare at.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Bob

      A boy pumping another boy still looks disgusting like in 1912

      January 16, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Ironicus

      Actually I don't have "outraged righteousness" as regards the bathroom humor. Some of it makes me laugh but I'd rather not encourage the stuff that sucks which is done by the same person.
      If it's funny to me I'll laugh. I'm not outraged by any of it. I'm just an old grump who was looking forward to some high-brow arguments. If all we can get here is bathroom humor, then I'll try to enjoy it as best I can considering the haphazard nature of someone exploring their sense of humor and making some bad jokes along with the good. Bad jokes are bad.

      January 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • snake

      IT'S STILL 1912, F A G OT T!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • toppgunnery

      I washed my dick in ur iced tea!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • David Myers

      Actually MLK's daughter just changed her position on gay/lesbian rights/marriage about a week ago from opposition to support. Google it!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  14. partyallthetime

    Im sick of everything having to relate to gay people. imagine if i had to include gay rights in every conversation I ever had?
    person 1 "hello" isnt it a wonderful day? person 2 "Not yet, because not enough people like gays."
    person1 I sure hope the Broncos beat the Lions." "yes, but can we get back to talking about gays and where they like to vacation?"

    January 16, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Matt

      Oh, straight, white, Christian privilege working right here...

      January 16, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • rick

      i think you overestimate that "everything" is about gay people. still, you had time to comment on a story

      January 16, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Im Gay and Love to watch GLEE while sucking on goobers

      I will give anyone a goober snarling. Us KWEERS have no morals. We only want to get humped in the butthole and have cottage cheese sprayed all over our faces.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • sam

      Oh those pesky gays! What's a poor, put upon straight guy to do?

      January 16, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Prometheus

      Right...and, I am sick of having to hear that I have to practice and honor Christianity so that morons like you will be happy. You are another case where intolerant morons let their tadpole brains overlaod their bullfrog mouths.

      January 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Buzz

      It's not about Gay folks, it is about Equal Rights and Equal Protection Under The Law.

      Your are obviously too stupid to understand that or, what the 14th Amendment is about.

      With folks like yourself around, it's clear to see why the Nation is so screwed up.

      Did you even attend school?

      January 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Sort of like christians. It's amazing how many will comment about how god or Jesus is with them if you ask them a simple question that nothing to do with god or Jesus. Since you mentioned the Broncos, Tebow is a prime example of that sort of thing. And christians aren't even being deprived of their consti.tutional rights. At least gays and lesbians have the excuse that they are fighting for those rights.

      January 16, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • cherie

      @Buzz wote " With folks like yourself around, it's clear to see why the Nation is so screwed up." It's obvious the nation is screwed up because we are lacking morals and everyone wants their rights. Where does it end? Gays want their rights to do things that their body's were not meant to do,.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  15. Jim

    I wish someone could definitely say what MLK would think of today's gay rights movement so I could decide which side to support.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • LumberJack

      Well thats not gonna happen but I do have an option. Suck my big LumberJack Weiner then decide for yourself.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • EGB1

      I'm also hanging on the answer to this question. I can't possibly think for myself, so I need someone who died in the 1960's to tell me what to think. Even less relevant to me is "Rev." Bernice King's viewpoint.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Ironicus

      lol

      January 16, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  16. jessn

    I have to say after reading the comments above I learned on thing. All most all of you are narrow minded scared people!!!!! MLK was not gay. Nor was he filled with poo. He was a dreamer who was almost before his time. It is my belief that he would have accepted people like me with open arms. My wife and I have been together for many years and we both believe that his speech was for ALL PEOPLE. Not just a few. What makes some people better then others?

    January 16, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Uranus Butter

      Yep. He was a dreamer.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • nope

      His speech was only for black folks.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Ironicus

      MLKjr's speeches were for everyone to enjoy as they like.
      Some people didn't like it and shot him.
      They could have been black extremists but they weren't.
      They were white supremacists who shot him.
      If he had been shot by, say, Malcolm X, then that would have changed the aftermath a bit and increased the internal squabbling amongst those seeking Equal Rights, but at some point the increased understanding that comes with a good objective education would have brought better Civil rights legislation sooner or later. MLKjr was a good speaker and brought the USA into a better place with the help of all those who supported him.
      He did not do it alone.

      January 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  17. Mario

    Many of the messages people are posting are reminders that racism is still a huge problem. The GLBT Equal rights movement still has a long way to go and hopefully will achieve Marriage Equality soon.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Bill

      Mario, do you hear the ticking of the clock? Borrowed time. It's ok.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  18. Chief Two Dogs Phucking

    Marin love gay men as illustrated by the huge collecton of 8mm gay movies he had.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. tom-ay

    Loving the poo jokes, it shows the kind of maturity our voting public has. 5 year old mentality will vote for 5 year old mentality. We are doomed.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Your local Darkie

      Little known fact. Martin loved to eat the doo doo of Coe-retta.

      January 16, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  20. reverseangle

    This is the kind of back filling that makes little sense. It seems that letting people 'pretend' at play to placate them is more of a complacent moral compass. However, freewill is given to mankind and we have to work with what we have. Also, it seems hormonal imbalance is all the rage and seeks assurance.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:08 am |
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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.