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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. Your son is playing my meat flute

    MLGay was a Ho~Mo.

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

      So how's that low self-esteem doing based on all your posts you should be feeling better about yourself. Seriously, get so professional help so you can become a constructive member of society.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  2. Stanley the Imam

    Someone needs to take a deep dive into my assCavern.

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

      Not enough room with your head already there.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • DF

      I'm sure it's so stretched by now what would be the point.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  3. Stormfront

    how come they never mention King hiring blonde white h-o-o-k-e-r-s to beat up on them and then do.. well, you get the picture, or going on coke binges during his "meetings"? Or his plaigerizing his doctoral thesis? Or even that he plaigerized his "I have a dream" speech?

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

      Jackhole.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Stormfront

      @kurtinco: Why am I a jackhole? For mentioning things nobody wants to remember or know?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  4. EricKuma

    There have been many outstanding human beings that just happen to also be Bigots. Its a strange crazy mixed up world.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  5. Caliban

    I don't think Bayard Rustin would have associated with a man who didn't respect him. Coretta Scott King said he would have supported gay rights and she ought to know, right?

    January 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  6. Christian

    This sounds like wishful thinking to me. There's no evidence to think he supported gay rights, and there's one tiny letter which slightly suggests he did not. Yet people want to project what they believe onto him.

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

      Mr. Christian is exactly correct. It is impossible to know how the Reverend Doctor would think about any issue some 44 years later. It's disrespectful for anyone to put words into his mouth.

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

      I have to agree. I believe the writer of the article made up the story about some boy writing to Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding his feels towards other boys. There’s no evidence to support the story. I also find it offensive for someone to force his or her personal agenda on to others.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  7. Matthew Kilburn

    You know what is also important for our species? Procreation. Propagation of the human race. Having enough children to sustain our civilization, and ensuring that they are raised in homes best suited to the task.

    When was the last time liberals stood up for the traditional family – which happens to be best suited to producing and raising children?

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

      What was the last time you heard liberals trash traditional families? Try again.

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

      These days procreation is killing our species, not preserving it. Last thing we need right now is more people.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • ben

      procreation is important when we are HORRIBLY over populated? LOL! ok loonie.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Lisa B.

      I strictly use it for recreation...I'm sterile so propagation, or lack thereof, is God's fault.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Jeff Hink

      Great point, Matthew. One question, though. I'm a man. If I marry another man, will you no longer be able to have children (ignore the fact that women probably detest you)? And a follow up, if I may. What about the abundant amount of children who spend their nights in group homes or on the streets? If all the heteros are busy having their own children, can't us gays take care of the kids that are just as deserving, but are for some reason unwanted by the hetero couples that produced them? I'm sorry, I have just one more question. What about all the straight people that can't have children? Surely you don't think they can't get married? You see, my point is threefold. First, marriage isn't all about procreation. Second, there are plenty of children out there that would love to have parents, gay or straight. Third, the human race won't die out because I get a ring on my finger.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • floyd

      propagation and population of earth is about as much of a valid concern in 2012 as going out of your way to make sure you get enough sodium in your diet. the earth is over populated. granting people basic human rights and equality won't slow it down, and over-population also poses huge perils for the human race. http://ldolphin.org/poprecent.gif

      January 16, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • mreo

      Adam, you sound about as dense as a raw potato. Seriously, "project of civilization"? What the hell is that?

      January 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  8. Mark Basnight

    His embrace of Rustin answers this question. Dr. King a hater? Come on, now...

    January 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  9. jonborg

    I'm not sure if it matters what MLK thought about gay people. A much better question is: what does MLK mean to and for gay people? As much as I hate to say this, and I don't mean any harm to oppressed communities, but, MLK is dead. What lives on are his words, his vision, his power, not his physical or mental self. Plus, MLK was a panentheist, meaning that he found God in all, so, in light of where we are today, I'm willing to bet he would stand for the LGBTQIA community.

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

      Mr. Jonborg says, "MLK was a panentheist, meaning that he found God in all..."

      No. The Reverend Doctor was not a pantheist; he was a Baptist minister with a doctorate in theology from a conservative Christian background.

      The Reverend Doctor may very well have seen the hand of God in all things as Christians do.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  10. Principi

    A great person should not be slammed just because he didn't follow the party line on every single point.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Chuck

      And just what "party line" would that be?

      In his Letter from Bermingham Jail, the Reverend Doctor King quotes his name-sake, Martin Luther, saying "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."

      What "party line" was the great reformer appologizing for following? The full Luther quote is: "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. The "party line" that Martin Luther was referring to was that of "scripture and plain reason."

      I assert that that is the same party line that Rev. Dr. King also subscribed himself to when he quoted the Rev. Dr. Luther.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Zapp

    MLK would have his opinions. I would like to think he was about equal rights for everyone, but sadly I imagine such was not the case.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  12. Swiss Colon-ostopy

    Perhpas next Chirstmas I might recieve a nice big Beef-Log.

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

      Maybe by next Christmas you might learn how to spell.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  13. zisee

    I think would have determined that the times have changed and would take stand that it was okay to be gay, but I don't think he would have sanctioned marriage two gays and lesbians. Just saying, because I don't really care.

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

      Why do you think MLK would have had an issue with gays marrying? He didn't have an issue with whites and african americans marrying.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  14. God

    Martin Luther King Jr. respected ALL people...except bigots.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  15. Toss my salad

    Splash my face with some HotHorseraddish.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  16. James, Florida

    Where would George Washington stand on an African American President of the United States?

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

      George Washington owned as many as 300 slaves at one time.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Pejmon H

      Exactly. There is no point to question such things. These men were symbols and leaders of their time, what they had done will live on forever. Don't start picking at other aspects and beliefs.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  17. Rim

    MLK today would probably have the same sentiments that Bill Cosby has towards his own people. Utter disappointment.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Chuck

      Perhaps, had MLK lived, he would have led "his people" in a better direction.

      The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior is rather idolized by many people today, as he should be. But many of those people seem to forget that the man they idolize was: First, a highly-educated man, a doctor, who sought out and applied himself to higher education. Second, a deeply religious man. Third, he was a self-made man who worked hard.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  18. Ole Grandad

    I need my buttHumped until when I take a doo doo it looks like a pile of chewed up collared greens.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Observer

      Grow up.

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

      They won't grow up till the deal with their low self-esteem issues but that would mean getting professional help.

      January 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  19. Freeman

    Where would King have stood on Tebow?

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

      Probably on his abdominal area..

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

      "Boy, you mean to tell me you have all this scattered A$$ around here and you're a 24 year old virgin? You better go get some of that before the whole league learns you cant be a successful NFL quarterback."

      -MLK

      January 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  20. Guester

    Why on earth would we care?

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

      Because human rights are important for our species and for the project of civilization. If you don't think so, then yeah, you don't care, and you are, not incidentally, a morally bankrupt specimen of our species.

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

      What is morality? Debatable. Dr. King addressed this from a Christian perspective and clearly made his point about this kids "problem". A moral society needs a standard, the Bible is this standard in my view. Civilization has lost this compass from the 60s on, every year more and more questionable behavior is becoming the norm. In my opinion this lack of morality will be the end of civilization vs your opinion of somehow protecting it. My humble opinion of course :)

      January 16, 2012 at 3:28 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.