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. Yourgrandmother


    January 16, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Yourgrandmother

      4 ALL

      January 16, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  2. Scott H

    Wow CNN. You really are trying to win over the MSNBC libs. Now, let me ask you: Is that improving the quality of your "news"?

    January 16, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Observer

      This thought-provoking article has drawn over 1,400 comments including yours. Well done.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  3. Ross Haarstad

    Bernice King is very problematic in general; let us remember there was real strife among the King children.. I prefer to look to Coretta's embrace of LGBT civil rights

    January 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  4. Garbonzo

    Stupidest MLK article ever written.

    January 16, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • dragongirl

      I agree....dumb and meaningless...so much more important things going on in the world today....tired of this evil gay agenda.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  5. dalhousie123

    enoch100 ... it might not be a bad idea to educate the public that the majority of pedophiles are hetero-s-e-x-u-a-l-s.

    January 16, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  6. Jeff in Ohio

    Really? Really?? What a horrible headline, designed to do nothing more that elicit racist rhetoric! Why would CNN even think about honoring this man's birthday by such a headline? Particularly when Dr. King is not here to correct any out-of-context or incorrect opinions he may or may not have held at one time or another.

    January 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • dalhousie123

      How does this article elicit "racist" rhetoric???

      January 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Jeff in Ohio

      Sorry..didn't mean racist...meant more prejudiced. I read a lot of comments that were very spiteful based on color of skin. It appeared that there were strong feelings for each corner of their worlds when Dr. King was all about equality. All some people need is a platform and I saw this article as being just that. No other purpose. From some other comments, I can see I wasn't alone with my perception. I appreciate the chance to clarify my comment. thanks

      January 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  7. wolfpackbob

    On the day of his observance, why is CNN helping the gay movement to try and co-opt the mantle of civil-rights? Why not have PETA ask what MLK thought of clubbing baby seals? “The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired,” King wrote. “ MLK's stated opinion is perfectly clear. This is typical CNN headline-grabbing rather than journalism.

    January 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • dalhousie123

      why not? it makes for discussion which is evident by this entire discussion board. And why is it so absurd to ask this question? Peoples opinions change throughout their lives.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • enoch100

      next up = "CNN believes the beauty of pedophilia would have been supported by MLK" Next year, that will be their headline.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Jeff in Ohio

      That's my point exactly. Manipulate the reaction before the story is even read. Can't find any decent media feeds anymore.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Chuck

      "Why not have PETA ask what MLK thought of clubbing baby seals?"

      Don't give the PETA folks ideas.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  8. Yourgrandmother

    Good article, thanx CNN. The only thing MLK would be disgraced about is all of the hate showing up in this thread. Today MLK would support all basic freedom's. My vices may be different from your's, just leave me be. We have failed to follow through with "the dream"... FREEDOM .... is gone. Thanks Racist Extremist Fu#ks

    January 16, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Chuck

      "The only thing MLK would be disgraced about is all of the hate showing up in this thread. "

      I suspect that, yes, he would be disappointed about hate. But not hating someone does not mean approving of their lifestyle. The Rev. Dr. King was a Baptist minister first and foremost. I suspect he would have loved the sinner while still condemning the sin.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  9. dalis

    @ n-i-g... No, sir, you are an illegal alien.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  10. b4bigbang

    georgezeller: "ignorant comment."

    If anyone's ignorant it's you, since u r obviously ignoring news accounts of widely-reported events. Wise up George.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  11. pditty

    Sad that on a day to honor the life of a great man this is the story / agenda CNN is running. I came here looking for a summary of the mans life and reminders of his achievements. Guess I'll go elsewhere for real journalism...

    January 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  12. David

    Regardless of what MLK thought in his time, if he were alive today, he might think differently. It's unfair to pass judgement on someone from a different time. Especially when they are not here to defend themselves.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Chuck

      "Regardless of what MLK thought in his time, if he were alive today, he might think differently."

      This is exactly correct. It is impossible for anyone to know what the Rev. Dr. would think today, some 44 years after his death.

      And it is disrespectful for anyone to put words in his mouth.

      Please allow the Rev. Dr. King to rest in peace and don't insist of exhuming his corpse to use as a ventriloquist's dummy to mouth whatever words you want it to say.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  13. Marty

    Every day.....I find more and more things I like about Mr. King.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Chuck

      You might start by embracing the honorifics he earned he EARNED with his own hard work and study, he was - and is remember as - the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior. Please don't strip him of what he worked for and earned.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  14. dalhousie123

    reading everyone's comments is really funny and sad at the same time. It's too bad America still has these debates...

    January 16, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Chuck

      " It's too bad America still has these debates..."

      Or is now starting to have them.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  15. John

    He most likely didn't openly oppose or support gay rights simply because if he did or didn't he would've alienated a strong supporter/supporting group that he needed alongside him in the Civil Rights struggle. So in other words he compromised.

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

      The man cared nothing about a "supporter base." He was not so petty. He was not a windsock blowing in the breeze... as so many "civil rights leaders" are today.

      In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he quoted his namesake Martin Luther, the great reformer saying, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." Those are not the words of someone who chose his words based on popular opinion.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  16. steven

    and the sun might not rise tomorrow, and who cares what he thinks of gays.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  17. Geddy

    Who cares? I got a day off!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  18. Jimh77

    I am not a Racist. But, What exactly did MLK do for the betterment of humanity? All I see is he was a womanizer, a wife cheater and so much more in negativity. I guess I just do not understand what this guy exactly did to deserve a Federal Holiday. I guess I will probably never comprehend it. All I see is what type of person he really was and I wold have steered cleaer of him personally. I could care what color he is. That makes no difference to me.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Geddy

      Got dat right Jimbo.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • peggy

      To: Jimh77,

      You are the poster person for a failed social, moral and educational system. Please accept my sincere sympathy for your chronic condition.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Me

      Liking or disliking someone as a person has little to do with what God used that person to do during his life. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s purpose on earth was to instill a message of greater good for all of humanity. Admittedly, he was a sinner, as we all are. However, the day honors less Martin L. King, the man, and more MLK's message. Approve or not of the individual and his personal acts, the message he sent was of great importance to our nation.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  19. mac james

    you should be burned at the stake!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  20. n-i-g-g-e-r-s-s-u-c-k

    n-i-g-g-e-r-s s-u-c-k and should be forced back to Africa.

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

      So, that means you're going to Europe then right?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      You be raciss and sheet! Neanderthal cracka @ss cracka. All evidence points to da awesomeness of da black peoples!

      January 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • lowell@speakeasy.net

      I was born here, and my Remington 870 shotgun says I don't have to go anywhere.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      I am getting pretty good with my Remy 700. I don't hold it sideways anymore. Word.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • n-i-g-g-e-r-s-s-u-c-k

      @dalis: Last time I checked, this country was built by white people, and originally was for whites only. The illegal 14th amendment screwed that up, and is going to be repealed soon.

      @Emcee: lol

      @Lowell: your people dont' belong here. Take the education you turned down, your drugs and crime, and take it back to Africa.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Independent Mind

      Let me guess; you are missing half your teeth and you life in Mississippi. Right?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • peggy

      Yes! and take all your inventions and advancements with you. Pontificating, hapless, vacuous imbecile.

      January 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • CWMoss

      You do realize they didn't come here by choice....right?

      January 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Independent Mind

      It is comments like this that make me ashamed to be white. Burn in hell you toothless peice of white trash imbecile.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Independent Mind ...Right, you made it clear we are toothless the first time. Race realism: It is a b1tch!

      January 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Billy Joe Bob

      This is not the Trailer Trash blog. Have you ever asked yourself why they make you so nervous ? Weenie too small ? Yeah we get that.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Larz

      @MCICECOLD. Come one guy! even black folks dont talk like that. Use a better mask coward. As far as the author, oh yeah, you're a bright guy, and a real badass out here in Cyberworld.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Billy Joe Bob That is the typical darkie response. "I gots the big d1ck and you gots a tiny one, dats why you losing yo white wimmez to us" ...and then the trailer park stuff...how about NASCAR and wrastlin? Anyone who states facts is trailer trash right? The black race is a complete failure. Check out the FBI site on crime for a little bit o' truth.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Independent Mind

      Emcee Ice Cold . . . yeah, but what I didn't make clear the first time is that n-i-g is brainless too. And as perhaps the one of the only Native Americans in this thread, I am within my rights to tell n-i-g and his whiteass friends to go back to Europe as well.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      "Come one guy! even black folks dont talk like that" – That is racist!

      January 16, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Just me

      LOL Back to your cave Neanderthal!

      January 16, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Independent Mind – Fair enough. I will gladly go back to Europe if it was not overrun as well. Native Americans got the shaft, no argument there.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Billy Joe Bob

      Emcee, you DO realize you share 99.95 % their genetics. They are essentially the SAME. Oh that's right. Trailer Trash drop out at 5th Grade. Never mind.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Neanderthal genes is what separates every single race on the planet from blacks.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Billy Joe Bob – You keep telling yourself that we are all the same. Stats don't lie.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Humans and chimps share 96% of DNA.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Observer

      It's got to be tough for ignorant racists to realize that there is a far more successful, better educated and much smarter man in the White House than they ever will be.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Is Barrack Obama smarter than me? Ye he is, what is your point? No race realist believes that all blacks are stupid, just the majority of them.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Just me

      Neanderthals we described as beast in the bible, not a shread of humanity in them until they mated with albino africans who went north to escape the african climate... neanderthal decents and chimps get lice. Lice dont like human hair.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      "Lice dont like human hair." – Well, you got me there.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • mac james

      Hope you drop dead from your hate and rot in the open sun with maggots also so repulsed by you that they crawl by to something better.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Larz

      Emcee Ice Cold, you’re trying too hard to convince us that you’re some young black male. Sounds like your grammar is from the Larry Flynt school of racist propaganda. Again, no one in the real world writes like that. Especially on a CNN blog, come on man!

      January 16, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Emcee Ice Cold

      Ahhh, the Larry Flynt school of racist propaganda, my Alma mater. Good times!

      January 16, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Stormfront

      While his name leaves a bit to be desired, I fail to see why n-i-g-s is under attack here. He's not the one who turned Detroit into a third world slum. He's not the one that's taken every major city they are a majority in and turned them into slums. He's not the one who's jacked the violent crime rate up 300% in the last 50 years. He's not the one guilty of 85% of racial hate crimes, 77% of r-a-p-e-s, 84.7% of armed robberies, or 62% of murders... no, that's blacks. The ones your worshipping. The ones your defending against your fellow disgruntled white man. A white man who probably can't get a job in this economy because, being white, he doesn't fall under Illegal.. I mean Affirmative Racism... I mean Affirmative Action. He's the one who's culture is slowly vanishing, even though it's the greatest culture alive. He's the one who's race is being destroyed by the Jews and their pet n-e-g-r-o-s. He, you (fellow whites), and I are the ones who are told we cannot have a single country of our own, that we have to be overran anywhere we go by disgusting, smelly, violent apes.

      January 16, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
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