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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. Judith

    I have many friends in the LGBT community and if God does not see what they are doing as right he is not going to hold that against them. God however said that you shall be judged as you judge the least of my people, so God will judge the LGBT haters harsher than those who are LGBT. Any Christian knows that is true as it is in the bible.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • M1sf1ts

      Well, that's a very twisted logic pretzel...

      January 16, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Judith

      It also says that you shall be treated as you treat the least of my people.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Blake

      Religion is a rouse Judith - no higher power is judging anyone. You've been sucked into an establishment that seeks to bilk money from simpletons like yourself in hopes of being guaranteed salvation ... unfortunately, there is no salvation to be had.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • p41

      You are twisted, and insane if this is your belief, and logic. Let me quess, you work for the government.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Judith

      @M1sf1ts I spent most of my adult life as a registered nurse with many of those years as a theatre nurse and I saw that whether a person was a saint or a sinner, gay or straight, black or white and even male ot female their heartsd all looked the same, their brains all looked the same and besides their reproductive system, their bodies looked the same: Believe it or not they all bleed the same. Whether you believe in God or not you lose nothing by loving your fellow human being but hatred will only eat you up inside. Never hate the person who hates you because nothing hurts a hater more than not being hated.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Judith

      Whether I believe in God or not does not matter, what matters is the way that I treat other people and it is everybody's right to believe as it is everybody's right not to believe.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Blake

      Sure - it's everyone's right to believe or not... I'm just trying to save you years of boring sermons and thousands of dollars out the window ; )

      January 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • George

      @Judith

      You need to read your Bible. It's not Christians who judge hom.os.exuals. It is the Word of God.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Stormfront

      Actually Judith, you're wrong. God is against gays. He even marks it as unnatural.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  2. jk

    Speculating on what King might have done today is interesting. But it would be more educational to discuss the buried truth about things he definitely believed back then–such as a minimum salary for every citizen. His increasing radicalism for economic equality would rattle as many cages now as it did then, just before he was assassinated.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Ben

    There is not room for debate. He was very clear. Please stop trying to rewrite history (and personally, I could care less if gays want to marry).

    January 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  4. Blake

    Why was this not written by Roland Martin, CNN? WHY!?!?!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  5. earnest T Bass

    don't think his dream went that far.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  6. vivian mcpeace

    Dr. King would have grown with society on the subject. Let any of us be criticized for our views from the 1960s! Many folks would run like lightening from their views in 1968, but then of course many folks are now hypocrites to their 1968 opinions. To bad, we were on a good track back in '68. The Right Wing has been winning the propaganda war, but we have been winning the cultural war.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  7. M1sf1ts

    Gay Coupling is simply NOT a Marriage.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Tim

      No, marriage is a government recognized legal contract. It has nothing to do with whether or not any 'coupling' is going on whether it be gay or straight.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • WilltheFree

      It is if we define it as one.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • jk

      And neither is straight coupling...

      January 16, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  8. JG

    Sounds like he disagreed with it but didn't feel people should be persecuted for it. There's a big difference.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • enoch100

      But the though police and CNN will not even allow that these days.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  9. toppgunnery

    gays can suck penises from here to Mars...Dr Martin Looter Koon wouls agree!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • M1sf1ts

      Please refrain from using racist epithets.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • jk

      There are penises between here and Mars? I thought those were asteroids.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  10. Maggie Drabing

    Dislike & don't agree.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • David

      I don't see how this can even be a remotely plausible article. Then and now are two way different time periods with two way different mind sets and view points. In all probability, Martin Luther King Junior was against gay marriage for the simple reason that it wasn't a big problem to him. One, he was not gay. Two, the LGBT community was pretty much nonexistent.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Cheryl

      You don't agree with what? The facts?

      January 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  11. Mike

    Don't know about King's stance on gay rights, but rest assured, Sharpton and Jackson could care less about anyone else's rights other than blacks.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • toppgunnery

      the correct term is Sharpton and Jackson COULDN'T care less about anybody but blacks, when you say could care less, u are negating your viewpoint!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  12. Former Reader

    Goodbye CNN, this was my last day reading your "news".

    January 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Reuters

      one word;
      reuters

      much better news site, actual educated people, no trailer parks allowed.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • sam

      But first you had to make several pointless idiot posts under this username to make sure you got the point across?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  13. janelle

    The fact of the matter is MLK JR.is dead. No one knows with any kind of certainty what he would think or not think about any topic 40 odd years later. Celebrate the life of this great man and his accomplishments, but keep all the speculation about current topics out of it. No one can possibly know.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  14. bob

    He thought they were gay

    January 16, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  15. john paul

    all qu33rs should die of aids.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • jk

      All humans will die of something. I guess all of them–including you–are evil.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  16. Craig

    This is to all those who complain of CNN for pointing out a new perspective. Many are claiming, "who gives a sheet," "Does it matter," "there are more important things to talk about."

    The answer is very simple. It does matter. CNN should proudly express unique perspectives about the challenges we face today to a man we revere for saving the Civil Rights Movement. Focusing on other topics or being a one issue advocate paper is ignorant and frankly boring. Leave that sort of ill-conceived journalism to the Christian Science Monitor.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Former Reader

      Craig,
      It is time to get a new job, cnn is going to have to let you go because the readership is going to go into the toilet if they keep trying to ram this crap down our throats!

      January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  17. The NewsFix

    A lot of people - smart people, people we all respect and admire - used to think the world was flat. They could not imagine man traversing the land at speeds of upwards of 50, 70 or even 100 miles per hour. They could not have possibly thought that man would one day fly in giant machines, a mile above the earth's surface...or even to the moon and back.

    One thing's certain. MLK would not have advocated discrimination against this young gay boy. The Reverend may not have had an enlightened view of gay people. But he knew very well what discrimination looked like and how damaging it could be to the human spirit.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  18. steve c.

    I don't know what his thoughts are, but I am pretty sure he would back their efforts to gain equal rights. I am also pretty sure he would be disappointed reading all the hate spewed out on this comment page.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  19. Paulie

    Gay, black, man, woman, rich, poor or other color or creed – all human beings are created equally and have certain inalienable rights. Way to not get it CNN.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  20. p41

    If you choose to live in your sin/sin's, don't profess to be a "Christian."

    January 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • The NewsFix

      Including the sin of hatred.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      I wish all of you religious nuts had one neck and that I had my hands on it.

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

      Christianity says we all live in sin, but are redeemed. So you might want to figure out what your religion says before you mouth off stupidly.

      January 16, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • WilltheFree

      Christian seems to be derived from the word Christ, who never in all the stories condemned anyone, let alone gays. Now the bible does condemn gays, but that was written 2000 years ago by a group of men who thought women, blacks and jews were inferior. But I'm glad you are able to think for yourself.

      And gays can absolutely be Christians... they know a lot about persecution ...

      January 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • sam

      oops! I think you just ruled yourself out of the club, then.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:48 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.