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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. JugDish

    Im thinking about a delicous doodee milikshake strait from a mans hairy butthole...MMMMM!...Tasty!!

    January 16, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • .......

      You're low self-esteem is showing go get some professional help.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  2. Eaton Manasses

    MLGays hot black butt would be real tastee!! Come back MAWTIN!!

    January 16, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Rimmy

      Cant stop laughing at your handle. HAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHA

      January 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  3. Tom

    So, the good Dr's only quote on the subject is telling a boy he wasn't born that way and that it's a problem, and Blake presents a load of conjecture provided by third parties?

    January 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  4. Eaton Butts

    MLK should be changed to MLGay so we can all be included.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  5. Joe

    It is not right to speculate on supposed stances historical would have on controversial subjects because the context and facts are impossible to comprehend – it’s like asking Jesus’s views on legalization of slavery or Washington’s view of illegalizing fireworks – We don’t know what either of them would think if given the all the current data or cultural standards.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  6. Eaton Butts

    You menz should pull down your pants and use your cheddar cheese blasters to cover my face.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • .....

      you need to get help for your low self-esteem issues.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Tom

      When are you available for blasting?

      January 16, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  7. vgs1895

    I wouldn't like anyone to speculate on how I might feel nearly 50 years in the future, and it's ridiculous of CNN to do the same now.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • PushingBack

      Oh my god...EXACTLY!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • GuessWhat

      LMAO – that's too funny since the bible about Jesus wasn't written till 50-70 years after he died, but they did the same thing. LOL!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • What IF

      GuessWhat,

      Yes, and even more so, since we actually have writings and broadcasts of MLK's stuff. Jesus never wrote a dot and, conveniently for believers, there are no live recordings of his preaching.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Market Saturation

      @GuessWhat - Are you including the old testament in that statement?

      January 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  8. Thomas Patrick Johnson

    I have to say this is the last time I bother to read CNN. This is not professional journalism. This is stretching the truth and pure speculation. This is a lack of integrity for reporting issues today that really need to be mentioned. CNN has been a failure. Good bye.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Bloke

      Are you really that dense? It's on a religion BLOG... it isn't meant to be a "news" item. Rather than trying to make it all about you and your views on journalism, perhaps you should learn what blogs are and why they are all about opinions.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  9. breaking news

    BTW, I actually checked CNN hoping o find an inspirational article in celebration of MLK day like, 'GANGS CALL MLK DAY TRUCE', but instead I find this left-wing agenda crap. Way to take the Jesus out of christmas, or in this case the MLK out of king day!

    January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  10. Eaton Peters

    I love MLK-GAY Parade week!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  11. HellBent

    Another pointless article by CNN on a hot-button topic meant merely to increase traffic and thus revenue.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • George

      That's exactly what this is. Pointless and inflammatory.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • vgs1895

      I agree.

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

    Geez , Louise. Pure speculation. Kinda like guessing King Tut's stance on labor and unions.
    Different times, different awareness. Cut the deceased some slack.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • He who has the last laugh !

      Yeah, and I know 100% certain that Elvis would have left his estate to me.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • vgs1895

      LOL on King Tut. I agree.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  13. James Attmore

    Daily CNN Gay Agenda Propaganda. No article relate to MLK being a Baptist minister. CNN couldnt find anything relate to MLK being a pro muslm. Pathetic.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • He who has the last laugh !

      Now if we could just get someone to come out and tell the truth about his dream. A dream of freedom, equal rights and personal responsibility, not one of preaching poverty pimps like JJ and Al Sharpton.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  14. Master of the Obvious

    I think it is great that we focus on the most important issue of Martin Luther Kings legacy whether he would support equal rights for gays. Seriously the rest of that stuff he did who cares?

    January 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Generally everyone

    Compelling question. Here's a better one: Who cares?

    January 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Kerry

      We would, problem is it;'s so freaking small a dust mite couldn't even find it with a high powered telescope you pathetic little fratboy.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Skengdon

      I agree who cares. Gays have just as much a right to everything I as a black man should. Why is this still a topic

      January 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • tokencode

      Black men can get married

      January 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  16. Takin a Deuce

    You gays need to come suck on my plasma cutter.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • .......

      You need to get professional help for your low self-esteem issues.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • edwardo

      You're obviously a follower, not a leader.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  17. WDinDallas

    In all his writings he looked at it as perversion. Even in this article.....

    Now you are trying to change the intent of his beliefs...

    January 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • GuessWhat

      Do you always repeat yourself? Same reply then....

      " in all his writing he looked ta it as perversion."

      Well, gee now...if you hadn't been so lazy and done your homework you would have known that being gay was classified as a mental illness up until the 1970's. Then the truth started coming out that everything reported on about gays was done by bias and prejudice people. Eventually the laws would start to change, etc...etc...

      January 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • atroy

      All perversions originated in Dallas.....one sick town.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  18. WDinDallas

    In all his writing he looked ta it as perversion. Even in this article.....

    Now you are trying to change the intent of his beliefs...

    January 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • GuessWhat

      " n all his writing he looked ta it as perversion."

      Well, gee now...if you hadn't been so lazy and done your homework you would have known that being gay was classified as a mental illness up until the 1970's. Then the truth started coming out that everything reported on about gays was done by bias and prejudice people. Eventually the laws would start to change, etc...etc...

      January 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • George

      His beliefs reflexted a sign of the times. Period. It's 2012.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • He who has the last laugh !

      Liberalism will always try to rewrite history to fit their narative.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  19. Market Saturation

    we should start a movement for 'Chain Marriage'...

    Person A marries person B....B marries C....C marries D....and D marries A (Note: A is not married to C). All consenting adults, of course.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • GuessWhat

      Are you really this stupid in public? Wow what an idiot.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Caliban

      It worked for Newt Gingrich!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Market Saturation

      Hah...you scoff, LOL...

      ...you ask for a redefinition of marriage based on where you think the line should be drawn while mocking others for proposing the line be drawn differently...see dictionary: Hypocrite

      January 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • OhIKnow

      ".you ask for a redefinition of marriage based on where you think the line should be drawn while mocking others for proposing the line be drawn differently...see dictionary: Hypocrite"

      LOL! Now polygamy should be legal because they had in the bible. Oh and incest too so you should be able to marry your sister and close relatives. . ;-)

      January 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The purpose of marriage is to provide a stable, nurturing environment for the rearing of children.
      If the adults involved keep their se/xual proclivities private, then what is the major objection to alternative family forms?
      There are a lot of single parent families these days.
      Are two loving, nurturing parents not better than one, regardless of s.ex?
      Would three or four loving, nurturing care givers not be superior to a single one?

      Family partnerships have come in all sorts of shapes and sizes throughout history.
      Don't confuse the purtian ethic to which you compare everything else as the ONLY good/moral way of life!

      January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Some of the most revered characters from the Bible were polygamists.
      GENESIS 4:19
      "Then Lamech took for himself two wives : the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah."
      Deuteronomy 21:15
      "If a man have two wives, one beloved and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:"
      Exodus 21:10
      "If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights."
      King David is called "a man after God's own heart" and he had multiple wives.
      1 Samuel 25:43 states:
      "David also took Ahinoam of Jezreel, and so both of them were his wives."
      2 Samuel 5:13:
      "And David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he had come from Hebron. Also more sons and daughters were born to David."
      2 Samuel 12:8
      "Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel : 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. ' I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more!"
      GENESIS 32:32
      "And he [Jacob] arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok."
      2 CHRONICLES 11:21
      "Now Rehoboam loved Maachah the granddaughter of Absalom more than all his wives and his concubines; for he took eighteen wives and sixty concubines, and begot twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters."

      January 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      When the American south was forced to rescind the Jim Crow laws and accept racial integration, it was Baptists who most strongly opposed equality.
      Wallie Criswell, an extremely popular and influential Southern Baptist Minister famously said "Let them integrate! Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up."
      Scarcely half a century later, the zeitgeist has shifted so radically that such open racism is considered abhorrent to the very same Christian sect that spouted scripture to justify insti.tutionalized bigotry.
      I fervently hope that the prevailing Baptist condemnation of ho.mose.xuality will soon be viewed with the same sense of shame that the memory of segragation elicits.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  20. Rob

    If it wasn't so politically incorrect they would tell MLK was gay too. Agenda, Agenda not reporting.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • atroy

      No, he was just an adulterer.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
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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.