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Why we’ll never really know how Martin Luther King Jr felt about LGBT+ rights

Reiss Smith January 18, 2021
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Close-up of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shown in this photo headshoulders, alone

Martin Luther King Jr. (Getty)

On Martin Luther King Jr Day, we revisit the legendary civil rights leader’s relationship with LGBT+ rights.

Dr King’s legacy is towering and complex. He devoted his life to – and was ultimately murdered for – advancing the rights of Black Americans, rallying against the “three major evils” – racism, poverty and war. But when looking back at his life and work, it is of course natural to wonder about the things that largely went unsaid.  For many, queer Black folk in particular, his stance on LGBT+ rights is a topic of much conversation.

During his lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr was not a vocal advocate for gay rights (he was assassinated a year before Stonewall, in 1968), nor did he speak out against them. One of the rare (if not only) examples of him discussing sexuality publicly comes from an advice column written in 1958, in which an anonymous boy who felt “about boys the way I ought to feel about girls” asked Dr King what he could do, or where he could “go for help”.

“Your problem is not at all an uncommon one,” Dr King replied. “However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired.

Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr speaking before crowd of 25,000 on March 25, 1965. (Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty)

“Your reasons for adopting this habit have now been consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with this problem by getting back to some of the experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit.

“In order to do this I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognise the problem and have a desire to solve it.”

Were such words written in 2020, they would rightly be condemned. Do they indicate that Dr King saw homosexuality as something that could, in this boy’s case at the very least, be fixed? It seems so. Attitudes like this were hugely prevalent at the time, with the LGBT+ community under constant attack from the government and by society.

However, they were usually combined with an aggression and a hate that was entirely absent in Dr King’s response. It’s possible that he both believed this boy’s sexuality could be changed, and truly believed in equality for all, with no exception.

The opinions of those who knew and loved him, however, suggest he was no homophobe.

Bayard Rustin on Martin Luther King Jr: ‘He would not have had the prejudicial view.’

Bayard Rustin, the legendary organiser of the 1963 March on Washington, became one of Dr King’s most trusted advisors while he was organising the Montgomery bus boycott and was influential in his adoption of non-violence tactics. He was also a gay man.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (r), Bayard Rustin (left), and Rev. Bernard Lee, (c) after a 1964 meeting with New York Mayor Wagner to discuss civil rights
1964: Martin Luther King Jr (r), Bayard Rustin (l), and Bernard Lee (c). (Getty)

In 1987, almost 20 years after Dr King’s assassination, Rustin approached the subject of his attitudes towards gay people in an essay.

“It is difficult for me to know what Dr King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view,” he wrote.

“Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me.”

Rustin said this his own gayness “was not problem for Dr King but a problem for the movement”, explaining that eventually some of the reverend’s inner circle eventually “came to the decision that my sex life was a burden” and “advised him that he should ask me to leave”.

“I told Dr King that if advisors closest to him felt I was a burden, then rather than put him in a position that he had to say leave, I would go,” he continued.

“He was just so harassed that I felt it was my obligation to relieve him of as much of that as I could.” After the split, Rustin said, King “continued to call on me, over and over”.

Dr King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, certainly believed his central mission was inclusive of LGBT+ rights, even if he remained quiet.

1964: Coretta Scott King and her husband Dr Martin Luther King 09 December in Oslo where he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
1964: Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther King 09 December in Oslo where he received the Nobel Peace Prize. (Getty)

Coretta Scott King was a tireless gay rights campaigner.

In 1998, addressing a Lamda Legal anniversary luncheon, Mrs King said: “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people, and I should stick to the issue of racial justice.

“But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

Mrs King was a tireless LGBT+ rights campaigner, coming out in support of the groundbreaking Gay and Civil Rights Act that would have banned anti-gay discrimination in many public arenas in 1983.

Until her death in 2016 she continued to fight for LGBT+ equality: calling on then-president Bill Clinton to stop the gay military ban in 1993 and condemning George W Bush in 2004 for his anti-marriage equality stance.

Declaring marriage equality a civil rights issue at the time, she said: “With this faith and this commitment we will create the beloved community of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, where all people can live together in a spirit of trust and understanding, harmony, love and peace.”

On the other hand, there are those who have positioned Dr King’s legacy as against LGBT+ rights. Most notable, his own daughter, Bernice King, said in 2004 her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex unions” while campaigning against marriage equality (though it appears she has since changed her own position, having welcomed the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on the matter).

Those who believe Dr King would have supported the community have dismissed Bernice King’s words, noting that she would have been approaching five years old when her father died and therefore, couldn’t possibly know his view on the matter.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know what Dr King’s true position was. The fights for queer liberation and Black liberation have overlapped and diverged and various points in history – and continue to do so to this day. Neither community (not its intersection) is a monolith, and no person is all good or all bad. It’s impossible to say exactly how Martin Luther King Jr felt about LGBT+ people and their rights simply because he isn’t around to tell us. On the evidence and testimonies available, it seems his thinking was flawed, but not malign, and he may well have considered himself empathetic to the community. Ultimately, the biggest crime is that he isn’t around to tell us today.

Related topics: martin luther king jr

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