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. b4bigbang


    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 | Report abuse | Reply

    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.

    I agree w/toadears' comment and disagree w/Joe because pushing for gay equality has terrible consequences. Look at all the gay priests, the Sandusky scandal etc. All of them are gay and the way many people become gay is by seduction recruitment by gay pedos preying on boys when they're in their moldable, impressionable youth.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • georgezeller

      ignorant comment

      January 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Allen

      Facts? Who needs them? I can use good old scare tactics and baseless assertions to communicate my views!

      January 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  2. jason

    Are you people for real??? The economy needs fixing the political system needs a over haul and on this MLK day this is the question you people ask? Mitt says he likes to fire people I would love the chance to fire everyone associated with this crazy article!

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

      What does fixing the economy or political system have to do with editorials on CNN?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  3. Zman

    This guy must be a tea party man

    January 16, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Dufus

      Zman, you are gay!


      January 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  4. Dread

    What does it matter? This was the 1960s and Dr. King was a southern Baptist minister. I can only imagine what he would've thought about it.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • JPS

      He would say exactly same thing the Southern Baptists say today. No rights, no freedom, no justice and no marriage.
      CHRISTIANS are just as bad as the SHIA MUSLIMS. Not a single difference.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  5. JPS

    Like any CHRISTIAN BIBLE BEATER ( LIKE ROMNEY ) he would have said to round all of us up, put us concentration camps and "USE" the youngest gays until bored with them then kill all of us by the millions just like Adolf Hitler did.


    January 16, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  6. alittlebittiredofthisnonsense

    Why after all this time should we be concerned about knowing or even digging it up on how MLK felt about gays? What possible purpose does this serve? Why oh why oh why? I am really at a lost as to why this is even in the news. Should we not then be equally concerned enough to know what Genghis Khan thought about lesbianism in order to get on with life?

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

      Didn't Kahn eat white women?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      Truthfully, I don't care what ANYONE thinks about gays. People need to shut up and live their own lives and get out of everyone else's bedrooms.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  7. toadears

    I will shout this from the rooftops and give you a reason to delete my comments, American turds

    January 16, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • CNN

      You have to try harder than that, you stupid little peen.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  8. toadears

    anderson cooper is a vanderbilt and is gay

    January 16, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • dalis

      So, what you're saying is he's infinitely more fabulous than you.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  9. toadears

    I think it is time to discover who at CNN is deleting my comments and sue them for a violation of my rights of free speech. I see many nasty comments on here that are profane and vulgar and mine are not. WHO ARE YOU?

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

      You're an idiot, so we're only letting random posts from you get through. What are you going to do about it?

      January 16, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • George

      But what are your thoughts on yaoi?

      January 16, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  10. runswithbeer

    If Martin Luther King were alive today he would most likely have the same views towards gay people as Rev.Al Sharpton. Rev. Sharpton is the second smartest American I know of. The smartest one fortunately is the Commander in Chief.

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

      YOU are complety beyond help.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  11. dave keiser

    martin luther KOON

    January 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • M1sf1ts

      Please refrain from racost epithets.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • mac james

      White trash!

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

      Must be a tea party member...

      January 16, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • mac james

      Dave Keiser you are white trash!

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

      Nice one, guy. Now, just imagine all the ugliness a man named Dave Keiser has just associated with his name. That's why most bigots stay anonymous.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Just me

      you're voting for Ron Paul right?

      January 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  12. BD

    Lots of good people didn't speak out against the anti-semitism in Europe before and during World War II, even the modern generation let the genonide in Rwanda happen.

    It doesn't mean good people didn't believe it was wrong or had they been aware of the situation to greater extent, perhaps they would have done something about it. Its very easy to look back on history and critisize those who didn't take action, its much harder to know their minds.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  13. Serve God

    the point is moot – the science we have now was not around in King's time. The science we have today clearly shows that gayness is not about choice but part of one's biological uniqueness. So King would accept that. But even without that info, he was dedcated to accepting all people as evident by his friendship with Bayard. He lived the gospels as they were meant to be followed.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  14. John

    Any black person is who is anti gay deserves to be a slave.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • M1sf1ts

      My, what a hateful comment.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • dalis

      No one deserves to be a slave. Don't be so small-minded. Signed, a gay person

      January 16, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Dread

      Now you're the slave

      January 16, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Just me

      you deserve to be a butt slave. I chose not to be gay.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  15. Kurtis

    Guess what?! No one cares what MLK Jr. would say today about gay rights because the man is dead. This is 2012, and there are 7 billion people alive. They are who count. Not MLK. His dream lives, but his hypothetical positions on today's issues are frivolous, if not malicious. No one cares what MLK's views were/would be on gay rights, just like no one cares what Plato would have thought about Darwin's theory.

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

      I can't agree with you more...that was exactly what I was thinking....

      January 16, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  16. Relictus

    Maybe we can dig him up and ask him. Oh, is that pointless, like this article? My mistake.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  17. Dufus

    Headline reminds me I have take a dump!


    January 16, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  18. Just me

    MLK had to watch gay white men sit at the lunch counter after voting...gay is not the same as being black.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  19. a disgrace

    king would get sick is he saw the disgraceful failure obama has been.

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

      Why do you say that?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      True dat!

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

      You're looking in the mirror saying that to yourself you pathetic loser

      January 16, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  20. Elle

    Freal? It's MLK day and your headline is not about what the man did in his life and why we celebrate the day but what he might have thought about the gay community? Brilliant. On second thought, not brilliant. I'm actually embarrassed for you CNN.

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

      CNN raised the question of what a critical rights advocate from the past might feel about today's critical rights issue. It's embarassing for bloggers to not figure that out.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Exactly! CNN should have had an article about what a fraud MLK was. A plagiarizer and a philanderer! Dr. my @ss.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
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