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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. hemo

    he probably would have hated them. he preached to hate one another. i dont know why CNN would even write such an article when the answer is so obvious that he would hate the gays

    January 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  2. Sao

    IF YOUR MIND IS NOT OUT YOU'RE NOT OUT! GAY ARE MENTALLY SICKED. LOST THEIR COMPASS!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  3. what

    Who the heck cares? What Jimmy Carter think about, the price of tomatoes in Brazil?

    January 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  4. Southern Celt

    The real question is, Why does CNN give so much press coverage to less than 10% of the U.S. Population? What makes Gay's more important than the other 90% of us?

    January 16, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • jenan

      so true!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Dufus

      .
      CNN is gay.
      .
      .

      January 16, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      No one made you come to this article, Celt, and no one forced you to whine about this coverage.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Rob

      Fortunatly, it's more like 2 – 2.5%.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • peggy

      Southern Celt,

      Because gays are for the most part educated and highly successful. In many places their median earning is way higher than average. Do you know any gays?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  5. Rob

    It doesn't matter what MLK would have said, it only matters what Jesus would have said, and he probably would have said "Yes, God loves you.....but you must stop your sinful ways". Same thing he said to the prositutes.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Bob

      Consider the nail on the head hit by Rob.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Porky the Pig

      .
      AMEN!
      .

      January 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • sam

      Wow, look – three dense tools all in a row. I hear banjoes.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  6. corntrader19

    He was a Baptist preacher. He would have told gays they need to repent. HIs niece became angry one time when she learned that gays were latching on to the equality movement. She said "My uncle didn't take a bullet so gays could have equality."

    January 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • peggy

      She obviously does not have a heart like her uncle.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  7. Matthew

    Yep!

    He was a black Christian!

    Hates the gays!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • peggy

      Matthew,

      All black Christians are not the same. I think you are referring to evangelical black ones who learned from the southern white ones.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • It Would Have Been You

      Oh no he didn't, Mattie boy! What he WOULD have hated is you for your prejudice!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  8. Abba-Dabba-Du

    Gays weren't much of an issue in his day, they pretty much stayed in the closet. That is why he never did a sermon on them, they just didn't matter. Nobody talked about them, and if they came out they were shamed. Now, they have become an annoying special interest group bent on slamming their agenda down the throats of normal people. That's right, I said it. You ain't normal folks, and mother nature would agree. Go back in the closet please. So frustrating when less than 1% of the worldwide population can have so much influence.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Jim tom

      Why don't you go back into your cave? And it's yabba, not abba, you moron.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • jenan

      agreed!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Adam

      Spoken like a true Christian.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Mikey

      I concur!
      Barney Ruble

      January 16, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • peggy

      The last I heard it was one in 10 which would mean about 30,000,000 Americans. I could be wrong though.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  9. JOhn

    ok. Leave it to CNN to try to draw a correlation between MLK and gay rights. This page should be totally devoted to the man and the heroic nonviolent struggle he oversaw. It is completely typical of this news organization to push forward this agenda at every possible opportunity presented. There is nothing wrong with gay rights but it has its own day and it even has a parade. This is MLK day so BACK OFF CNN!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Matthew

      YES CNN!

      DONT BOTHER US WITH FACTS AND TRUTHS THAT DONT ALIGN WITH WITH MY IDEALS!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • DisgustedAtThisArticle

      Exactly! Well said!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  10. John

    CNN running such an artilce on MLK Day is GAY.. The Pope's birthday is coming up, will your run an article regarding child molesting priests on that day? Get Real, would you...

    January 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  11. Portland tony

    All I can say is that those commenting show a hell of a lot more intelligence than the author of this inane article!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Just Like You

      Those commenting with prejudice, division, and the polarization of the human rights of gays are not surprisingly pea-brained idiots like you, my dear!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  12. Antonio

    I separate King's shadowy religious convictions from his profession as a public spokesman for black civil rights. This helps me to appreciate King for all he accomplished for the black community. It is not my job to judge the man's personal life. King paved the way for black civil justice in America. That was his 'dream'. Anything else is left up to conjecture.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  13. Aaron

    Okay , no staight men like gays ....Its human nature ....If straight men liked gays ....us women would be in trouble n the human race would vanish before ya know it....so lets be thankful mk?

    January 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  14. Tony

    CNN is really going down the tubes,fast!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  15. Lisa

    I think this is an unfair, non-relevent question to ask.

    Views of gays, even by open minded people back in the 60's, were not even remotely the same as they are now. Many people saw being gay as some sort of mental illness.

    If Dr. King were alive today, yes, I do think he would be pro-gay. But the fact is, even if he stood out from the crowd as a beacon of hope for equality back in the day, I don't think that equality extended to people who were seen as perverted and deviant.

    I'm very happy, by the way, that gays in this country have more and more rights.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • peggy

      Lisa,

      I love you comment. You are thoughtful and intelligent.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  16. pete

    you know and i know that martin was gay.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  17. steve

    he thought they would all rot

    January 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  18. D Gannon

    He's dead, does it really matter what he thought ?

    January 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Well, considering there is a crime ridden street in every big city with his name on it, yes.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  19. Mike

    Isn't this the poster child for a MOOT point?

    January 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  20. DeVita

    To quote Margaret C.

    I would love it for Jesus to come back to the Earth, look at all the oppressing anti-gay people, and shout "THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT!!!!"

    He preached about love and compassion, equality for all, which is what MLK preached.

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

      I'm not hugely religious or anything but I think what you said is really bang on! We need to love, be kind and more compassionate and understanding...

      January 16, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • steve c.

      very well said/written (imho)

      January 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Adam

      AMEN DeVita! Jesus (if he had the capacity to) would be ashamed of all of you.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • SLIM

      You may wish for it to satisfy youself but, it will never happen. Read the bible, you know that big thick book.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • peggy

      Yes!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:41 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.