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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. Michelle

    This is THE MOST INSANE, STUPID, CARELESS ARTICLE I HAVE EVER READ!! HOW DARE CNN print this. This WHOLE REPORT IS BASED ON SPECULATION about AN ISSUE THIS MAN CAN NOT TALK TO OR ABOUT! ALSO, this writer has not even CONSIDERED the fact that people's outlook and ideals CHANGE over time! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU CNN? THIS IS CARELESS REPORTING TO THE 1000 DEGREE!! SHAME ON YOU, JOHN BLAKE!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • GuessWhat

      "This WHOLE REPORT IS BASED ON SPECULATION about AN ISSUE THIS MAN CAN NOT TALK TO OR ABOUT!"

      Neither did Jesus but that doesn't keep millions of people from condemning gays.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  2. Eaton Peters

    Come and feed me!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  3. Seth

    I see why people want to legalize gay marriage, but why stop there? Polygamy should be fine. Beastiality should be fine. Incest should be fine. Where would we draw the line? Might as well keep it where it's always been, between man and woman.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • JC

      It's idiots like you that keep society from going forward.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Duh

      "Beastiality should be fine."

      Animals can't consent moron.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Peter

      If you can find a man and any adult animal that is able to give consent to marriage I will support their right to marry and do whatever they want in private.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Seth

      So consent is what's important? So incest is all well and good if they both agree to it?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Duh

      "So incest is all well and good if they both agree to it?"

      Well according to the bible the whole world started from Adam and Eve, their decendants who created the human race so the Christians should be ok with that.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Peter

      Incest is different as it impacts society in a measurable way. First of all I would say if one is a child then that immediately enters the 'unable to give consent' zone. As far as if both are adults there is the issue of genetic disorders that can be further passed on into society.

      To be consistent I would say that if no offspring can result I can not justify denying it if both are consenting adults. I would find it repugnant at the same time.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Seth

      @Duh-Do you believe the Bible? If yes, then explain the stand on gay marriage. If not, then don't insult it by using it.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Arron

      'Might as well keep it where it's always been, between man and woman'

      Under what distorted view of history are gay relationships something that is suddenly new?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Duh

      "@Duh-Do you believe the Bible? If yes, then explain the stand on gay marriage. If not, then don't insult it by using it."

      The bible doesn't condemn gay marriage only bigoted and prejudice people do.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Seth

      Read 1 Cor. 6:9, 10. That's the Bible.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Peter

      I am assuming the basis of your refusal to allow gay marriage is religious but it makes me wonder what your real motivations are. If it is a sin won't God address that issue at the appropriate time? (Isn't there something on man not judging in God's place in the bible?). I would think that all you have to do is to live your life as you believe God told you too and everything will be fine. Unless you think that there would be some temptation to you in allowing gay marriage?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Seth

      No I simply haven't had a good debate since I graduated. This is fun. And I dislike people who argue without knowledge, so I might learn some valuble points in an open forum such as this.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Duh

      "Read 1 Cor. 6:9, 10. That's the Bible."

      That doesn't condemn gay people that condemns male prostitution and the word homosexual was added later by a prejudice scribe. Maybe you should learn your bible.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Seth
      1 Corinthians 6:9 is not exactly clear.
      In the original Greek, the terms used in Corinthian's list of vices that are sometimes translated as "hom-ose.xual" are 'malakoi' and 'ar.senkoitai'.
      AR.SENKOTAI – Has been translated as "abusers of themselves with mankind" (KJV), "se.xual per.verts" (RSV), "sodo.mites" (NKJV, NAB, JB, NRSV), those "who are guilty of hom.ose.xual per.version" (NEB), "men who lie with males" (Lamsa), "behaves like a hom.ose.xual" (CEV), "men who have se.xual relations with other men" (NCV), and "ho.mose.xual offenders" (NIV). The New American Bible (Roman Catholic) translated ar.senokoitai as "practicing hom.ose.xuals". After much protest, the editors agreed to delete this term and replace it with "sodo.mites" in subsequent editions.
      'Ar.senokoitai' referred to male prosti.tutes for Paul and Christians until the 4th century.
      MALAKOI – Literally means "soft" or "males who are soft". This word has been translated as "ef.feminate" (KJV), "hom.ose.xuals" (NKJV), "corrupt" (Lamsa), "per.verts" (CEV), "catamites" which means call boys (JB), "those who are male prosti.tutes" (NCV), and "male prost.itutes." (NIV, NRSV). Until the Reformation in the 16th century and in Roman Catholicism until the 20th century, malakoi was thought to mean "mas.turb.ators." Only in the 20th century has it been understood as a reference to hom.ose.xuality.
      So does God condemn gays?
      It all depends on what translation you're reading.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Peter

      Ah...so you are either faking a belief you don't have in order to have a good debate or you are judging others in God's place (in direct contradiction to the bible).

      So yeah...welcome to hypocrisy.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Patricia

      "This is fun. And I dislike people who argue without knowledge,"

      Your lack of knowledge is showing.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Seth

      Well the original Greek is something along the lines of ou'te ar-se-no-koi-tai, which is closer to "Sodomites" or "liers with males"

      January 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Seth

      See that's the type of stuff I like Doc, good old facts to back up a viewpoint.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Patricia

      "Sodomites" or "liers with males""

      It's about male prostitution when you put it into context of the rest of the scripture then add the historical perspective.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Seth

      Can we agree MLK was a fairly decent man and that we don't know what his thoughts are?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Peter

      This discussion was never on MLK thoughts it was on yours.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Seth

      Best way to debate is to build on common ground. You use the points others are making against them. For example, you say MLK was a good man. I say he was a good man. We have something in common. That's good. Next I quote from a man we both respect, and it goes from there. This isn't my first rodeo.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Duh

      "This isn't my first rodeo"

      Dude you already lost.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Peter

      Injecting MLK into your statements on gay marriage is as relevant as saying

      'I like turtles'

      January 16, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Seth

      I've never said I'm perfect. I lost the debate where I had to defend the Holocaust, though I didn't have much to go with on that one.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  4. glyder

    and once again the author has an agenda.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Sam

      'Has an agenda' is a phrase that means 'has an opinion that is different than mine and has the audacity to express it'.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  5. anticom

    as soon everybody has equal rights, no special groups, we have better society. black and white, gay and straight, union and non-union, man and woman, every person has to have same rights.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. a disgrace

    king would probably throw up if he saw what a failure obama has been

    January 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Snow

      How about the ancient Egyptians? or have I not gone back far enough in time? umm.. how about the ancient Harappans? what do you think they would think about obama?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  7. Terry G

    What is the obsession with gays that CNN has. Enough please!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Patricia

      Because gays don't have the same rights as straights when it comes to marriage, their partnerships should have these same rights.

      Tax Benefits
      Filing joint income tax returns with the IRS and state taxing authorities.
      Creating a "family partnership" under federal tax laws, which allows you to divide business income among family members.

      Estate Planning Benefits
      Inheriting a share of your spouse's estate.
      Receiving an exemption from both estate taxes and gift taxes for all property you give or leave to your spouse.
      Creating life estate trusts that are restricted to married couples, including QTIP trusts, QDOT trusts, and marital deduction trusts.
      Obtaining priority if a conservator needs to be appointed for your spouse - that is, someone to make financial and/or medical decisions on your spouse's behalf.

      Government Benefits
      Receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for spouses.
      Receiving veterans' and military benefits for spouses, such as those for education, medical care, or special loans.
      Receiving public assistance benefits.

      Employment Benefits
      Obtaining insurance benefits through a spouse's employer.
      Taking family leave to care for your spouse during an illness.
      Receiving wages, workers' compensation, and retirement plan benefits for a deceased spouse.
      Taking bereavement leave if your spouse or one of your spouse's close relatives dies.

      Medical Benefits
      Visiting your spouse in a hospital intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours in other parts of a medical facility.
      Making medical decisions for your spouse if he or she becomes incapacitated and unable to express wishes for treatment.

      Death Benefits
      Consenting to after-death examinations and procedures.
      Making burial or other final arrangements.

      Family Benefits
      Filing for stepparent or joint adoption.
      Applying for joint foster care rights.
      Receiving equitable division of property if you divorce.
      Receiving spousal or child support, child custody, and visitation if you divorce.

      Housing Benefits
      Living in neighborhoods zoned for "families only."
      Automatically renewing leases signed by your spouse.

      Consumer Benefits
      Receiving family rates for health, homeowners', auto, and other types of insurance.
      Receiving tuition discounts and permission to use school facilities.
      Other consumer discounts and incentives offered only to married couples or families.

      Other Legal Benefits and Protections
      Suing a third person for wrongful death of your spouse and loss of consortium (loss of intimacy).
      Suing a third person for offenses that interfere with the success of your marriage, such as alienation of affection and criminal conversation (these laws are available in only a few states).
      Claiming the marital communications privilege, which means a court can't force you to disclose the contents of confidential communications between you and your spouse during your marriage.
      Receiving crime victims' recovery benefits if your spouse is the victim of a crime.
      Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for noncitizen spouse.
      Visiting rights in jails and other places where visitors are restricted to immediate family.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  8. JC

    He would be just like the black Christians today. He would condemn gay people and marriage. Hypocrites just like all Christians!

    January 16, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  9. Probing Uranus

    (__O__) <-Come one come all and probe my anus.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  10. GreenCollar

    I appreciate the irony of conservative Christians condemning others for speculating on a heroic teacher's opinion regarding a contemporary issue.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  11. Earl

    How would MLK feel about adultery?

    January 16, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • JC

      Baby Daddy. Nuff said!

      January 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Snow

      Oh thats simple.. all christians know and parroted the same answer for way to many issues along with adultery for the past hundreds of years.."Thou shalt not commit it.. unless thou art me"

      January 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  12. JOhn

    Leave it to CNN to try to draw a correlation between MLK and gay rights. This page should be totally devoted to the man and the heroic nonviolent struggle he oversaw. It is completely typical of this news organization to push forward this agenda at every possible opportunity presented. There is nothing wrong with gay rights but it has its own day and it even has a parade. This is MLK day so BACK OFF CNN!

    January 16, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Patricia

      Gay rights =.the rights to full legal, social, and economic equality, that includes marriage, which makes this a civil rights issue.

      Tax Benefits
      Filing joint income tax returns with the IRS and state taxing authorities.
      Creating a "family partnership" under federal tax laws, which allows you to divide business income among family members.

      Estate Planning Benefits
      Inheriting a share of your spouse's estate.
      Receiving an exemption from both estate taxes and gift taxes for all property you give or leave to your spouse.
      Creating life estate trusts that are restricted to married couples, including QTIP trusts, QDOT trusts, and marital deduction trusts.
      Obtaining priority if a conservator needs to be appointed for your spouse - that is, someone to make financial and/or medical decisions on your spouse's behalf.

      Government Benefits
      Receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for spouses.
      Receiving veterans' and military benefits for spouses, such as those for education, medical care, or special loans.
      Receiving public assistance benefits.

      Employment Benefits
      Obtaining insurance benefits through a spouse's employer.
      Taking family leave to care for your spouse during an illness.
      Receiving wages, workers' compensation, and retirement plan benefits for a deceased spouse.
      Taking bereavement leave if your spouse or one of your spouse's close relatives dies.

      Medical Benefits
      Visiting your spouse in a hospital intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours in other parts of a medical facility.
      Making medical decisions for your spouse if he or she becomes incapacitated and unable to express wishes for treatment.

      Death Benefits
      Consenting to after-death examinations and procedures.
      Making burial or other final arrangements.

      Family Benefits
      Filing for stepparent or joint adoption.
      Applying for joint foster care rights.
      Receiving equitable division of property if you divorce.
      Receiving spousal or child support, child custody, and visitation if you divorce.

      Housing Benefits
      Living in neighborhoods zoned for "families only."
      Automatically renewing leases signed by your spouse.

      Consumer Benefits
      Receiving family rates for health, homeowners', auto, and other types of insurance.
      Receiving tuition discounts and permission to use school facilities.
      Other consumer discounts and incentives offered only to married couples or families.

      Other Legal Benefits and Protections
      Suing a third person for wrongful death of your spouse and loss of consortium (loss of intimacy).
      Suing a third person for offenses that interfere with the success of your marriage, such as alienation of affection and criminal conversation (these laws are available in only a few states).
      Claiming the marital communications privilege, which means a court can't force you to disclose the contents of confidential communications between you and your spouse during your marriage.
      Receiving crime victims' recovery benefits if your spouse is the victim of a crime.
      Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for noncitizen spouse.
      Visiting rights in jails and other places where visitors are restricted to immediate family.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  13. Dante

    Please stop saying "If Martin Luther King, Jr. were here today he would say _________________________" and then fill in the blank with whatever political or social agenda that YOU want. Do not abuse this man's name and legacy in that way. Nobody knows what he would say about these issues that were not issues in his time. Remember Martin Luther King–not for the things that you would want him to say now–for the things that he actually did say.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  14. sgtonestop

    Pointless article

    January 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  15. JRYDAF

    MLK and james earl ray had a gay relationship, it's true! james earl ray killed MLK for giving him AIDS

    January 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Observer

      Where is any proof that you didn't TOTALLY MAKE THAT UP?

      January 16, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  16. Ned

    Thank goodness Lucy VanPelt is here to point out the low self esteem of the comedians.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  17. Enitan

    You mean confused people???????????????

    January 16, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  18. kls817

    I think the point is that MLK wasn't perfect by today's standards – nobody is. Lincoln didn't actually intend to free existing slaves, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, yet we think of these people as pioneers of civil rights. And they were, compared to the rest of the people of their time.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  19. Hot Carl

    I remember going on tour with MLK. I remember he told me once, over a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, gay people made him sick.

    January 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Joshua

      So Carl you must not be a Christian since lying is a sin.

      January 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  20. Lilith

    Market Saturation ... why not plural marriages? Who does that harm? Leave your preconceived notions behind & think about .. why not?

    January 16, 2012 at 2:49 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.