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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. KindaSorta

    Aaarrghh! I just went out to check the mail!!! Forgot it was MLK Day.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  2. Sao

    Gay is basically lust in the mind and heart. Just like a married man or women desiring someone outside their marriage. Adultry....sin...think!! born with but must stop the fire from speading...

    January 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • cmxsmitty

      If you want to marry someone and spend the rest of your life with them – that's not lust. It's love. Get a clue.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Lilith

      Please share how to stop this fire from spreading .. it's been working so well for all those married adulteres throughout human and biblical history.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • IceT

      Perhaps they should be allowed to marry so their lust of mind & heart would no longer be a sin.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • sam

      LOL what an idiot.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • David Myers

      So where did your expertise on this subject come from? What you say goes, but only for you. Another closet case just hoping they can resist "temptation" . . . pant pant . . . You people are pathetic with your judgemental nature. Get a life and stay out of everyone else's!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  3. Looking for role models

    President Tom Jefferson wrote all men are created equal, but held slaves and procreated with underage slaves, president Dick Nixon as head of the executive branch of government covered up activity of his illegal "plumbers", president Clinton lied at a video deposition under oath, MLK championed the content of one's character but engaged in outright plagiarism for his Ph.D dissertation- is George Washington the only role model for young Americans?

    January 16, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Dr Zoidberg

      ya like kids are looking for ancient ole men to be role models.............this idea that kids have role models needs to go....i cant rremember anyone in my school when i was young who would say .....hmmmmmmm i want to be like benji franklin or i want to be like this person or that person .......c'mon

      January 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  4. Dr Zoidberg

    he was a preacher who knew being gay was wrong as the book of corint hians clearly states that men who love other men are sent to the lake of fire

    January 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • LostinSLC

      Civil rights were meant for all, all races and creeds. Sorry you missed that in history and regardless of your opinion when you decide to bar rights to one set of people based on their beliefs or orientation then you are no better than the slave owners in the 1700's.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Ralph

      I thought they were sent to Fire Island. Oh well, my bad.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  5. Dr Zoidberg

    as a preacher who knew being gay was wrong as the book of corinthians clearly states that men who love other men are sent to the lake of fire

    January 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Lilith

      Oh well then, there you have it ... if the book of corinthians states it then it MUST be true, as real as that lake of fire. lolol

      January 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Rob

      Riiiiiight....cause God clearly made gays and lesbians for the sole purpose of hating them. SMH

      January 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  6. Dr Zoidberg

    testing 123

    January 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Lilith

    So Dr. King somehow wrote, "In calm, pastoral tones.." & told this boy he had a "problem". No matter how he wrote it I'm sure that really hurt that little boy .. it certainly didn't answer his question or give him any good advice. Answered like a true politician.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • srichey

      Relative to the times, it probably was a very progressive answer when you consider that he was also a religious man. Dr. King was a very intelligent man, i'm sure he had a lot of cognitive dissonance about the issue.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Lilith

      srichey .. I tend to agree, I'm sure that his religious beliefs were a detriment to his truely being a leader for civil rights for "all".

      January 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  8. Playin with my weezer

    and sittin on the toilet.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  9. M1sf1ts

    Gay Coupling is NOT Marriage.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Ok

      Gay marriage is marriage.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Lilith

      Niether is hetero coupling ...

      January 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  10. IceT

    I'm sure if he were alive today he would have "culturally acquired" a better more open view of gays.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  11. t3chsupport

    His views were common for the times. If they all knew what we know now, and he still had those views, I'd lose my respect for him completely, as a hypocrite.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  12. JohnR

    This is what happens when people all but deify humans. It doesn't matter what a man who died over 40 years ago did think then or would have thought now. What matters is what we, who have been privy to the debate, should think now. The cause of rights has expanded, and that is a good thing.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  13. Rimmy

    christian = anti gay

    all religions are exclusive and divisive

    January 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Mike2040

      For God so loved the world he gave his only son that WHOEVER believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. Whoever, means everyone, inclusive. Get it? EVERYBODY.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Mike: What a pathetic scripture!! I love the world also but would not have my kid killed to prove it!! Your god is a vicious maniac...read your buybull more and you'll soon realize how wretched the thing actually is!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Rimmy

      Will everybody who does not believe in Christ and lives a good moral life go to Heaven Mike2040? You better check your bible again .

      January 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  14. RillyKewl

    I wish this part of the comments section had a like button, as most of CNN's pages allow.
    In fact, on some of the blogs (ie, religion), it might be useful to have a thumbs down button as well.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  15. Uncle Sanchez

    Its a wonderful day to take a dump in your gay boyfriends mouth.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Rimmy

      i love that.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Michael

      It's a wonderful day for me to wish your father had pulled out.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  16. tea party

    Dr. King was awesome ....I sincerely respect him for his courage and his peaceful fight...oxymoron pun not intended..As a straight married intelligent man I must reinterate ....se=
    -xuality is not a choice ....we are born one way or the other...No matter what any religious figure "thinks" of it

    January 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  17. BEN WILLIAMS

    WHY WOULD YOU TAKE A DAY LIKE THIS TO TALK ABOUT THIS TOPIC WHILE THIS GREAT MAN IS DEAD!!!! IF HE WERE ALIVE WOULD HE SUPPORT GAYS? THE ANSWER IS YES!!! HE SUPPORTS ALL!!!!! BUT!!!!!!!! HE DOES NOT BELIEVE IN GAYS TO MARRY.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      I guess you didn't read this article, Ben, there is NO PROOF for your wild claim that Dr. King would have wanted to hurt his fellow Americans who are LGBT by denying us the same right to protect our spouses as you take for granted.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • sam

      It's fascinating that you seem to believe you knew him, and what he would think.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Ironicus

      Considering the large numbers of LGBT who remain hidden in every religion, his views on it were probably old-fashioned and "out of sight out of mind" sort of thing. And he may have been bise.xual himself. Only he knew for sure unless he had gay partners at some point. Then they could also weigh in on this. But it doesn't matter much and is no one's business anyway.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  18. jwb1978

    Opponents of gay rights & marriage aren’t defending the Bible’s values. They’re using the Bible to defend their own". This is not just applicable to gay rights, it is applicable to almost every viewpoint that the "Christian" political right promotes, to the point that I would dispute that there is anything actually Christian about them at all. Attributing your own thoughts to something or someone outside of yourself & then deifying them is a form of idolatry.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Liz in Seattle

      Amen

      January 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Gwyneth Paltrows Doggy Style Nippers

      *POOT* <-smell it nig ger.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Stinky McCracken

      I celebrated the holiday by takin a SHYT.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  19. K2

    I don't believe he would have been a supporter of the movement, however, he may have been a supporter of the individual and not passed judgment. MLK was a product of a different era and his views on this subject would have most likely mirrored those of the larger society. He advised the boy that since he had recognized his problem, that was the first step to fixing it and that pretty much sums it up.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • RWLA

      Question with no answer: What did the boy do?

      January 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • K2

      RWLA – only the boy knows the answer to that...

      January 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  20. greg

    Being anti-gay poisons the soul; bigotry poisons the soul. You can say God tell you to be that way. You can claim you know God best. But the root of such feelings are fear and hate. The Black community has received that many Whites. And now some of them give it out to others. It may be human. But it is not divine.

    January 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      *Like*

      January 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • David Myers

      I very much "like" as well. Bravo!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:14 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.