home
RSS
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. Prince

    King fought for equality and justice for all. We should too.

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

      True... but what is that equality and that justice?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • cbinal

      You are exactly right. He didn't fight for special rights.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Norman

      cbinal-gays demand the SAME rights you backwards rednecked bigot-and you cant stop it...

      January 17, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  2. Cambodian man in San Jose

    Gay and lesbian are not accepted by our society from my perspective. Discrimination of nationality and male and female are different from gay and lesbian. Please don't compare that. Please don't use the law to absuse our society. By nature it is impossible to allow gay or lesbian to be legitimate.

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

      Good points... and the Government can not mandate by law - despite what some people may want - social acceptance.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • dalis

      How are they different? People are people.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Merde

      Uptight people will always be priks. Always.

      January 17, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  3. mag

    I'm shocked that this was the story that CNN decided to run on MLK day. whatever tiny itsy bit ounce of respect i had for CNN just evaporated. wow, CNN are morons. simpleton morons.

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

      you are the moron, mag

      January 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  4. TheRealJesus

    Listen, when MLK was alive a lot of people thought differently about a lot of different things. Grow up and get over it.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  5. aLr

    What did he think about bacon cheese burgers? Who cares! Why do we care so much about what others think?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • RoyaleWithCheese

      I think the question on everyones' minds is what do that Kardashians think about bacon cheeseburgers?

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

      And if he liked Coke-A-Cola in his day, does that necessarily mean that he would love the product called Coke-A-Cola today?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Just Black

      It is sad that Dr. King can`t be remembered by his own great legacy! There is no comparision with black folks fights for civil rights and the movement for gay rights. Blacks men ,women and children were murdered ! You can`t hide from being Black! Cnn should have never put this topic out! It is not Martin Luther King`s approval that gays need ! God`s blessings is BEST! God Bless! Young N Black

      January 16, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  6. Stormy One

    Why does everything have to be about the gays? I think it's great that gays are able to marry in some states and am all for equal rights. But, I don't like how everything has to be a "gay" issue and think that it hurts their cause. What would MLK think about Shweaty Balls ice cream? Would he be upset that the Packers lost?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • PensacolaPet

      We've lived for the last 3-4000 years with everything being about the straights, their children, their marriage ceremonies, there problems living the married life in the suburbs, and on and on ad nauseum. I find it refreshing that for the last 25 or so years, some people are talking about something other than the straights and their lives.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  7. Rick Morrow

    Martin Luther King's niece was on Fox and Friends and she said MLK would be a social conservative. That is what a true man of God is, for the Word of God is the author of Conservatism. But, you know Liberals, they will lie about anything. The Civil Rights movement was not about hating white people like the Black leaders use now for their platform and it stinks.

    Satan owns all perversion. Anyone who reads the Word of God knows that truth and reality.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Observer

      Rick,

      If you are really concerned about s-xual sins, why aren't you trashing the FAR GREATER number of Christian adulterers? It's all pick and choose hypocrisy.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • dalis

      Rick Morrow wrote, "you know Liberals". ...Apparently, you don't.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Chuck

      Mr. Morrow and the Niece are exactly correct. One must keep in mind that the Reverend Doctor King was a Baptist minister. His doctorate was in theology. That is the lense through which he viewed the world and, I suspect, is the lense he would continue to view the world through where he still alive today. If you want to have a reasonable guess as to what he would think about some issue, ask what other conservative Baptist ministers think about that issue today.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • PensacolaPet

      Rick, look in the mirror. If you are fortunate, you will see the real pervert.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  8. cbinal

    I want to know what Dr. King would think of Chas Bono. He would probably say What the ...?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Observer

      Why do you care?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • cbinal

      @Observer Because it's funny. Are you gay? If so, after Chas Bono's surgery did that mean his girlfriend is straight now? Does that make him straight?

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

      cbinal,

      If you find all the struggles that Chaz has gone through as humorous, it says far more about you than him.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • cbinal

      Oh I'm sorry let me cry for her...umm... him.... ummm....it.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • sam

      Your supposed 25 years of bible study is really showing. This is what happens.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  9. Stephen Bueckert

    This is really dumb. Now is a time to honor Dr. King and the Movement for which he gave his life. It is NOT the time to discuss an issue in which Dr. King was not involved. Gays can talk about their issues the other 364 days.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • George

      It's absolutely disgusting. And there is going to be a backlash against hom.os.exuals because of these tricks.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • mac james

      Another idiot.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • TT

      cmon, man, its important to understand that the amazing work that Dr King did can be replicated within the gay community - human beings are human beings and inequality is inequality. pointing out similarities is the causes does NOT mean that we are taking away for what he did for racial inequality - it does just the opposite, it solidifies that the work he did for racial inequality was so impt it can be modeled in the gay rights movement...

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

      quite frankly, i dont think gays came up with this story. they cant be that stupid. its probably some dumb CNN staff member with no life experience trying to get reactions from people. I am for gay rights but to put this story up on MLK is the most tasteless disgusting move I think i have ever seen CNN pull.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • PensacolaPet

      Dr. King fought for the rights of all people whose rights had been unjustly withheld. He may not have been aware that what he was doing would in the future empower gay people to defend themselves against the s**t that straight people have served up to them all these years. I thank Dr. King for what he did for me, having witnessed the Stonewall event myself, realizing that without Dr. King's activities, those people might not have had the courage to stand up against the New York City police harassment and persecution.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • George

      And when I say 'backlash', I mean with my tongue. On their backsides.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  10. mac james

    Mabel is the sick one. Observer is dead on!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  11. chippy1

    i agree

    January 16, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Charms

    I like the way MLK recognized it as "a problem that needs a solution."
    I think he'd have welcome them but also make them understand that it is an unhealthy lifestyle that can be un-aquired.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • TT

      unhealthy lifestyle?? are you kidding me? it's 2012, CHARMS - learn to love your fellow human being and respect their lives. People are born gay, its not a lifestyle and its not something that can be cured...thats such an uneducated thing to say. Wow....

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

      Your penchant for sitting on the couch all weekend eating pork rinds is an unhealthy lifestyle.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Charms

      TT: show me proof that they are born gay. That's the old argument without proof. So please back up your statement with good reference or research that supports it, else shut up. You must be the uneducated one. Continue being Lady Gaga's sheep.
      Sam: you must be the pig lol

      January 16, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  13. Espf401

    Does it really matter what he thought? It's like asking what did George Washington thought......

    January 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      What George Washington and MLK thought is important.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Chuck

      What they thought is important. What some people speculate that they might think if they were still alive today is just sheer speculation and, as such, of no real importance.

      Instead of speculating on what we think the Rev. Dr. might have thought, we should spend this day focusing on what the Rev. Dr. did think and say. He left us a rich legacy in his writting and in his speeches worthy of reading and study.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  14. Gottlieb Schlittenfahrt

    What did MLK think of gays He liked them; he probably thought that everyone should own at least one.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      You win the internet!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Chuck

      My GUESS is that he not only liked them but, as a Christian minister, felt Christian love and compassion toward them. But that does not mean that he approved of their lifestyle. My GUESS is that he would have loved the sinner but still condemned the sin.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Norman

      youd be wrong, chuck-the loving heh sinner hating teh sin is someone who HATES gays-they look at gays as less than straights and not deserving of equality-that is pure hate-MLK supported gays per hsi wife-she knew him best-she knew his heart-and hsi right hand man, the guy who made him, Ruskin-was gay-proof he loved everyone

      January 17, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  15. imright

    I'm SHOCKED!!! CNN writing a gay rant and force injecting it into a MLK day offering? what's next??? are you going to inject your Gay prone agenda into an article about a manned mission to Mars, if it ever comes about?! Let's focus on what MLK actually did and stop speculating about something that could never be proven as –fact-.. something that a NEWS website should be thinking about.. you know... facts!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • roy kennedy

      Relax dude, be shocked when you find your mom dead or something. Dont act as an immature person, Im guessing you are christian? then imitate Jesus, he hung out with the worst of the society giving them hope and showing mercy. if you are atheist..dont waste your time here, live your life ciao

      January 16, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • George

      It's disgusting.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • TT

      What?? bringing forward the fact that the amazing work that Dr King did could be replicated in another equal rights movement is extremely impt. How can you take offense to that...its the highest form of homage. Why are you so scared of gay rights? People are people and deserve respect and equal rights...thats pretty simple in my book. It doesnt take away from anyone. Additionally, I dont think Dr King would have minded using examples of past struggles and 'wins' in his teachings if it would yield a positive outcome....wow

      January 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • sam

      What's a 'prone agenda'? Also, is your keyboard broken? ???? !!!!!!

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

    "[B]lack males age 13 who have been raised on the streets and who have joined criminal gangs are as big, strong, tough, scary and culpable as any adult and should be treated as such." – Ron Paul

    January 16, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      What's your point? Does the truth hurt?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Chuck

      Ahhh.... wrong article, Mr. El Flaco. Ron Paul is not the subject of this discussion.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  17. roy kennedy

    MLK did what was a priority at his time. Im sure if he lived today he would have fought for gay rights, no doubt. I believe american education is poor.. we are far below other countries... and thats the problem. Educated people tend to be more respectful of others, all humans are equal, gay, str8, white, black, tall, small, etc

    January 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  18. gdaym8

    Now, that would be a WHOLE different dream.....wouldn't it?

    January 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  19. stateaffairs

    I expect that Dr. King would say the same as the Bible from which he preached. Of course gays like to say Jesus was gay, and David was gay, and you too would be gay if only you were only brave enough to come out.

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

      Ok, but David really was gay.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  20. Melting Pot

    Who care? The man has been dead for over 40 years. A lot has changed in that time. Regardless of what King thought back then, we have no idea what his views might have been today had he lived.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      He would have looked at black people today and thought, I was wasting my time.

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

      Carefully and slowly read King's answer to the young lad. Now read it again. King told the young man that he had a problem. Yes a problem. King was a christian. He knew being gay was a sin. He loved the sinner but hated the sin.

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

      Probably right, he would be discusted with his speech

      January 16, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33
Advertisement
About this blog

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.