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. The Central Scrutinizer

    I know for a FACT that MLK was gay. Bless him.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • fukm

      Why did he plug you, dumb @$$

      January 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer


      January 16, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  2. lynn

    great advice coming from a lech.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  3. FreetoBe

    People and their views do change over time, so what he would have thought in 1968 and what he would think today in 2012 might be very different. There is no way of knowing.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  4. fukm

    Our only hope is that the fudge paskers all just up and di.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • bttmboy

      Including all the straight people who are also in to fudge packing?

      January 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • fukm

      I'm good with that.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • bttmboy

      This dude sounds like he got his education from reading the welfare form or the back of the Kraft Dinner box.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  5. Sonic Stoichiometrey.

    I don't understand how being born or being oriented that way at birth is held as a self fulfilling prophecy.

    At the end of the day, Gay, Straight, or Bi, You can choose whatever your want to be and what you want, why limit yourself?

    Why date only guys? Why date only girls? People who are born gay and born straight should be able to choose their own path and not be limited by their genes or environment.

    Gay's can love Straights, Straights can love gays, Marriage is not the governments job, only contracts. Marriage is not a contract, i would argue that "loving someone" and being with them is not exclusively behold by the government.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • fukm

      You are a dope, man and woman can become one not man and man, that would equal 2, stupid.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • David Myers

      And you are a bigoted idiot, fukm. You've been reported as abuse.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:18 am |
  6. Barnaby Jones

    Kings words..... needs attention......culturaly aquired..... and.....it's a problem.......All are welcome to come to Christ but on His terms. Not ours.

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

    It's sad that such "godly, christian" people need to be so hateful!

    Also....there's a WHOLE lot of things in the bible that can "send you to hell." so none of you better get divorced, cheat, etc......

    January 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Dr Zoidberg

      the point is he believed in the fairy tale book the bibull so yes he believed men who enjoyed other men were not allowed into heaveny....this is a fact....everyone knows the bible iis fairy tales but MLK believed the fairy tales

      January 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  8. peick

    We will get Dr. King to say anything we want him to say given the current social consensus view.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  9. toadears

    Oh lawd. Any train into the tunnel, these people. He didn't discuss it, so they are discussing it for him.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Gladys Fogg

      Is that the buttTunnel? Im getting dialated.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  10. Dr Zaus

    All gaypes are created equal, so sayeth the law giver.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  11. Myto Senseworth

    Out of respect for a great leader, I will not post anything further about what I think on this subject. MLK was and still is one of the greatest. More people should listen to what he said....and try to understand.

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

      Yes, especially you!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • TCC

      AMEN. We do not know where he stood. He can not tell us where he stood.
      Why so much hate. We are ALL human. It is not our place or anyones place to judge. I am a PROUD supporter of a PERSONS rights no matter who they are.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  12. Mr. Lewis

    Only CNN would over shadow Dr. King's memory with a gay rights agenda. Give it a break for today at least. Unbelievable...

    January 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Market Saturation

      agree 100%

      January 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  13. fukm

    any man who wants to plug another is just SICK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Jim n Ed

      You are sick...educate yourself, ignorance is so last year.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  14. Bruce

    What an agenda. Keep putting it on every page you can find, and keep pinning it on dead people who cannot speak for themselves, and maybe you can finally convince the masses. It also doesn't hurt to write a purported "news" article, and load it up with self-serving editorial slant.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Market Saturation

      very well stated!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  15. ObamaJoe

    if born that way,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Do whatever you want, as long as it does not hurt others,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    But,,,,,,,,,,,it's just like politics,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    What if 1 want marry to 2 or more ??????????????Why shouldn't people love more than 1???????

    Should the system be modified again ?????

    It's not a simple change,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    January 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • mjcjr

      If there is a sound demand for such a marriage, and all parties are in agreement about the legal and financial details, then why not? As a society, we are going to have to keep up with the times, keep evolving – if that means redefining marriage every so often, thats what we have to do. Evolving and modifying is part of living.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Barnaby Jones

      I know how you feel. My little girl friend is sad I cant marry her. Stupid laws keep me from marrying my 10 year old girlfriend... we love each other. Come on little girls stand up for your right to marry an olderman.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  16. Bill, Bloomington Il

    Heterophobia is a big problem in this country today.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  17. Luch

    ....and the ACNN (Anderson Cooper News Network) propaganda machine just keeps churning out its message

    January 16, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Bill Maher and Anderson Cooper

      Wanna join our cirlcle jerk?

      January 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Market Saturation

      ACNN - so true...

      ...and here we have today's 'gay' news story...be warned, though...2012 is leap year which means we get 366 'gay' news stories from CNN instead of just 365.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  18. Dr Zoidberg

    it does not matter if the lake of fire is real or not. MLK was a bible preacher so he believed in it and in what the bible says....and the bible clearly says men who monkey with other men goto the lake of fire and this is what MLK believed

    January 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • David L.

      That's not particularly true. The Bible also talks about how you should treat your slaves. How do you think Dr. King thought about that?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  19. Barnaby Jones

    Gays like it all HOT so they should really enjoy HELL!!

    January 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      What is good what is right what is healthy????????????

      Is there a gay in God's kingdom?????

      Just don't know,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      January 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Ummmm

      You'll be the one enjoying hell asshole with a comment and judgment like that.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Doug

      They aren't going there but your hateful ass on the otherhand, probably is.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  20. Myto Senseworth

    I am not anti-gay, but there is no such thing as gay marrage. You can say a dogs tail is realy an extra leg. It looks sort of like the other 4, but...it's a tail not a leg.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Sez you. Who cares what you believe about gay marriage? The fact is that the law recognizes gay marriage in a number of states, and whether you believe there's "such a thing" is irrelevant.

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

      If gay marriage doesn't actually exist, then why do you fight against it? It's like fighting against invisible leprechauns riding white unicorns.

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

      Hey, Tom. Great argument. "a number of states" also used to say that slavery was legitimate. You really are convincing.

      Marriage will never be anything but what it has been for thousands of years, defined by thousands of cultures and religions, or lack thereof. All the politics in the world cannot change that.

      January 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Ummmm

      "Marriage will never be anything but what it has been for thousands of years,"

      Oh so you must mean we can get polygamy back and you can marry and have sex with your sister or close relative.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
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