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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. johnutah

    Considering he was a religious God Fearing person he would have been opposed to it. A man sucking off another man is down right disguisting. There is no place for this in a moral and decent society!!!!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Snow

      so is killing animals for meat to a vegetarian.. and so is the western open culture of dating and doing it like bunnies before marriage to a religious conservatives(not just christians, either).. should those be barred from the "decent society" you tout?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • El Flaco

      I hate to be blunt, but isn't that what your wife does for you? What is your opinion of her?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • El Flaco

      Snow, you are so right. I've been a vegetarian for 35 years, and watching people eat dead animals is really disgusting.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • sam

      So I guess this means you're finally going to stop watching guys do that?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Paul

      but I imagine girl on girl is okay, right? Because hetero guys just *love* that. Same thing, guy. I would argue johnutah that there is no place for this in this moral and decent society for an idiotic opinion like that. I was raised to believe that God loves everybody, because God is a loving being...why would anyone fear him as you say? Yes, God loves everyone, even people like you. If God hated the gays so much, he would've struck them all down with lightning by now.

      January 17, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  2. Blake

    MLK III for president in 2016! Who's with me?

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

      we dont need another black president that quickly!

      January 16, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  3. jon

    We can't ask him can we? So this is just more liberal pot stirring

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

      based on the first paragraph that says him quote

      "You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it",

      I would call this conservative pot stirring

      January 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • stan James

      ah yes – demonizng liberls again. that and a lot worse comments about liberals got to a Norweigan xtian extremist – who killed 70+ kids at a liberal day camp in Norway last summer.

      words kill. Your statement just adds to the poison that created that mass murder

      January 17, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  4. Paul

    Who knows what he thought and anyway, it doesn't matter anymore .. he died 50+ years ago. Find your truth in yourself .. no need to try looking for answer elsewhere

    January 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  5. Mabel

    Why gays? What did MLK think about other mental disorders?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Observer

      Being gay is not a mental disorder, but King had plenty to say about bigots.

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

      Okay, it's a sickness. Is that better?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • YouNeed Introspection

      Mabel, the sickness is in YOUR mind when you can hold on to so much prejudice and discrimination against a significant group of people who number in the millions just here in this country. You need to go to God and seriously beg for forgiveness and a more loving heart before your wither up in your illusory beliefs.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      He thought you need professional help.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Observer

      Mabel,

      Being gay is not a sickness, but King had plenty to say about bigots.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Wheres Your Love

      Mabel, the sickness is in YOUR mind when you can hold on to so much prejudice and discrimination against a significant group of people who number in the millions just here in this country. You need to cultivate a more loving heart before you wither and curl up in your illusory beliefs. The American Psychological Assn. and others have ruled being gay is not a mental illness, fyi.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Mabel

      I'm not bigoted. In fact, I AM gay! So there, haters of truth!

      January 16, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Norman

      mabel youre not witty enough to be gay-nice try

      January 17, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  6. RealHistoryX

    This just in... famous black Christian is a bigot

    WHO WOULD HAVE THUNNNNNIK! morons

    January 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  7. El Flaco

    Happy Martin Luther King Day from those fine folks at the Ron Paul Newsletter ...

    “He was also a comsymp [Communist sympathizer], if not an actual party member, and the man who replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration. [Martin Luther] King, the FBI files show, was not only a world-class adulterer, he also seduced underage girls and boys. The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy revealed before his death that King had made a pass at him many years before. And we are supposed to honor this 'Christian minister' and lying socialist satyr with a holiday that puts him on a par with George Washington?” – The Ron Paul Newsletter,1990

    January 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • stan James

      yes – teh republican party is the party of hating everyone. Its how they rile up their people and get them to contribute more.

      BTW when Johnson passed the civil rights bills in 1964, most of the democrats came around over time

      Now the south is very solidly repub. No end to some repubs r hate. Its like DNA gone bad.

      January 17, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • Woody

      There's no such thing as "The Ron Paul Newsletter." There was "Ron Paul's Freedom Report" that started in 1978. Ron Paul's Investment Letter and Ron Paul's Survival Report which started in 1985. Then the more controversial Ron Paul Poltical Report, which began publishing in 1987 and contained the lion's share of the offending passages. El Flaco, if you want the truth, you need to be more accurate or something important will slip by you. Something you probably haven't considered is that the controversial passages were written between 1989-1993 when Paul went back to Texas from DC. Yes, the newsletters were produced in Washington. Ron Paul wasn't even there.

      January 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Woody

      BTW, "comsymp" is a word commonly used by a frequent contributor to Lew Rockwell. Not definitive, but interesting.

      January 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  8. M1sf1ts

    Gya Coupling will never be Marriage.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • M1sf1ts

      Being Gay is a CHOICE.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Observer

      Bigotry will never be Intelligence.

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

      M1sf1ts,

      Do some research next time. Being gay is not a choice.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      The 2010 US Census reported there were then over 131,000 legally married American same gender couples. No use trying to pretend we don't exist.

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

      Science says being gay is not a choice. I know one thing that is a choice- religion. Why should your choice (religion) get to affect another person's rights?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • fred

      M1
      Not that I want to help you out but, you really must keep orientation separate from action. A good example would be Bill Clinton who is straight but, Monica and all the other women were choices he made. The argument that Tiger Woods used that he did not have a choice because he could not control himself is nonsense. He had a choice and chose wrong. Bill Clinton had a choice and chose wrong. The fact they chose women was orientation which they did not have a choice about.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      So is being straight!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Norman

      It IS marriage you backwards hillbilly bigot-in 6 states and over a dozen countries and for thousands of couples-sorry religious brainwashed sheep-now hurry and die off

      January 17, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • stan James

      its in almost all of w europe, and half of south america. Someday people like you will be seen as just another version of segregationism

      January 17, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  9. mac james

    Unreal ignorance! It's 2012 people; get over your hate and get off your white soapbox of supremacy!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  10. M1sf1ts

    test...

    January 16, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  11. BUFFALO

    Speculation, all of it. None of these people really know what Dr. King thought. The face one gives to the public can hide many different feelings thoughts and prejudices. Dr. King was brought up in a very "straight" era. And we all know how religious people feel about anyone who isn't "perfect"...like them.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Some dude

      Which is why Paul, who practically started the early church, called himself the chief of sinners. "There is no one righteous, no not one."

      January 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Norman

      his wife knew him best and she said he supported gays-lets defer to her

      January 17, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  12. Larz

    The fact that Hoover had no recorded remarks about Dr. King’s stance on gays DOES NOT mean that he had no opinion on it. That argument is a fallacy of logic, an Ad ignorantium or APPEAL TO IGNORANCE. When will you guys stop trying to shove your agenda down everyone’s throat? Have you no shame, on MLK day, seriously. Do you really think that your agenda is what black community, as a whole, is concerned about? Try massive unemployment, racism, poor schools; and don’t forget being patronized, marginalized, and continually having the media portray them in the most negative light.

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

      Whining about this article won't make LGBT Americans go away. A clear majority of Americans now support nationwide marriage equality. You are just going to have to get over the fact that anti-gays have lost.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Larz

      carrotcakeman,Indeed, they have been among us since the beginning of time. No whining here bud, the facts are still facts. I doubt seriously, that the average non-black gay person, particularly the well-to-do ones, could give a damn about the plight of any truly disadvantaged person. Your cause is ignoble and, to be honest, religious argument aside, defies “physical logic”. You’re going to continue to do what you do, but don’t try to act like you guys are incapable of being racist too. I know a lot of racist LGBTs; I guess not J Edgar Hoover was an oppressed minority too, or is he a hero now?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • stan James

      tks carrot cake man – the conservatives are terrified. Virtually all of western Europe has gay marriage / cu's half of latin america. Canada, and countries as diverse as israel, repub of south africa, Nepal etc

      whats coming is the conservative battle of the bulge – which they have already lost.

      And of course some of them show up here on MLK day spitting out their racial hatred = also against our gay friends and neighbors.

      January 17, 2012 at 2:23 am |
  13. sambo

    I'm guessing he didn't like them very much cuz he was married and had a mistress

    January 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • stan James

      brilliant – no wonder America is failing in the world with rednecks like you all around

      January 17, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  14. spamtrap

    I can see people are now trying to put words into a great man's mouth. From that article, I can see that MLK didn't condemn gay people, but I also see he did *NOT* support them. He basically told the boy to get help. How does that translate into support for gay rights? Only in the minds of ones who want it so bad that they will make things up to get it.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  15. Uber Gemini

    What does a cow think of a milk carton?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  16. Leucadia Bob

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vS4XouXr3AQ&w=640&h=390]

    January 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  17. toadears

    I don't judge gay people or whether or not they should marry. I doubt they could mess it up any worse than straights. My concern is the meglamaniacs in America who now have to bring gay into every conversation. The whole world is gay, the animals are gay, the planets are gay, etc. Before it is over, America will be claiming to the original site of the first gay person on earth. ENOUGH! Broken record. Talk about the news instead of distracting us all with this nonsense. Also, I do not care one iota what the Kardashians are doing this week.

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

      If you truly embrace the equality of others, you would take ownership and facilitate change rather than complaining about the topic being front and center. In otherwords, the way to move it from front and center is to support change to equality. Unfortunately, however your message is one of compacency which in and of itself supports the inequality. I trust however that was not your intent.

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

      I"m not quite sure where my comment went to.. not sure if it got posted but you need to realize we are a nation a little over 200 years old. we came to this country for freedom. with freedom comes pride. You need to realize that with any sort of population, whether it was with our forefathers who came ashore, to the civil rights for the black and for the gay population... there will be a sense of pride. this pride will last quite a while. but it will subside eventually. Gotta love the USA. I sure do and I'm glad to see it finally evolve.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm sorry you are inconvenienced by hearing about the fight for equality, but maybe you should stop complaining and be thankful that you are not the one being denied your rights.

      January 17, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  18. toppgunnery

    Jessie Shratpon and Al Jackson are 2 really uppidy blackques!

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

      toppgunnery is a fool who can't accept facts

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

      well, thye are a little uppity

      January 17, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  19. Me

    OK, this is news? I understand honoring and showing some respect for what Rev. King did and stood for, but is this really news? Debating on what the man may or may not think about any subject is idiotic at best. There is, nor will there ever be, any way to discovery what his view on the subject is.

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

      Here's the dictionary definition of 'news'. Yes, this is news.

      a : a report of recent events
      b : previously unknown information
      c : something having a specified influence or effect
      2
      a : material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast
      b : matter that is newsworthy
      3
      : newscast

      January 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  20. Den

    It's amazing to me the number of comments that take CNN.com to task for publishing this article. No one forced any of these people to read it, let alone agree with it. In the land of free speech, for some people there seems a very tight definition of what it means to speak freely.

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

      Yes. There are over 1,200 comments so far, many from hypocrites who trash CNN.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
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