If King were alive today, he would be 84, and he would have seen that a lot has changed in the U.S. since April 4, 1968, that dark day when he was gunned down by an assassin's bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. Since King's death every group struggling for its civil rights has affixed itself to his passionate cause for justice. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities in particular have been reviled not only for describing our struggle as a civil rights issue but for naming King as one of the civil rights icons who would speak out on our behalf were he still with us.
But would he really? As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day 2013, we no longer have to hold King up to a godlike standard. All the hagiographies written about King after his assassination have come under scrutiny as we have come to better understand all of him: his greatness and his flaws and human foibles. As I comb through numerous books and essays, learning more about King's philandering, his sexist attitude toward women at home and in the movement, and his tenuous relationship with the openly gay Bayard Rustin, I am wondering whether King really would be a public advocate for LGBTQ rights.
James Cone, the father of black liberation theology and the author of a book and several articles on King, states that we must understand King within the historical context of the black church. Would King have risked his already waning popularity with the African-American community, not to mention President Lyndon B. Johnson, by speaking out on LGBTQ equality? In the public address that I gave at the Gill Foundation's National Outgiving Conference in 2007, I asserted, "If Dr. Martin Luther King were standing up for LGBTQ rights today, the black community would drop him, too."
King certainly understood the interconnectedness of struggles against oppression. We see that understanding in his observation that "the revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place. Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial justice." That contribution clearly includes the current momentum toward LGBTQ justice, but would King speak out on this subject if he were alive now?
His now-deceased wife, Coretta Scott King, seemed to think he would. In 1998 she addressed the LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal, asserting that LGBTQ rights and civil rights are the same. "I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King's dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people," she said.
But King's youngest and only living daughter, Rev. Bernice King, who has been rumored for years to be a lesbian, as well as his niece, Alveda King, have historically thought otherwise. In 2004 the cousins, along with thousands of protesters, participated in a march against same-sex marriage in Atlanta. In January 2005 Newsweek asked Alveda, who has aligned herself with the religious right and frequently wields her family name and her voice against LGBTQ rights, whether Martin Luther King would be a champion of LGBTQ rights. "No, he would champion the word of God," she replied. "If he would have championed gay rights today, he would have done it while he was here. There was ample opportunity for him to champion gay rights during his lifetime, and he did not do so." She added, "My cousin, the Rev. Bernice King, has said that she knows in her sanctified soul that her father did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage."
And that might be true. I find it ironic that the public Martin Luther King we witnessed on the national stage talked vociferously about social justice and civil rights for all people when his personal life did not reflect the same ethos when it came to women and gays. And I find it sad that Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was the chief organizer and strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington, which further catapulted King onto the world stage, was not a beneficiary of King's dream.
In the civil rights movement Rustin was always behind the scenes, and it's likely that a large part of that had to do with the fact that he was gay. Many African-American ministers involved in the civil rights movement would have nothing to do with him, and they intentionally spread rumors throughout the movement that Martin Luther King himself was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin. In a spring 1987 interview with Open Hands, a resource for ministries that affirmed the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalled that difficult period quite vividly. He said:
Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization ... they thought that I should separate myself from Dr. King.
This was the time when [Rev. Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.
When Rustin pushed King on the issue, urging him to speak up on his behalf, King did not. John D'Emilio, in his book Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, wrote the following on the matter:
Rustin offered to resign in the hope that this would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay. "Basically [King] said I can't take on two queers at one time," one of Rustin's associates recollected later.
And in the 1988 book Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, Vol. 1, Rustin is quoted as saying, "It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about Gayness...."
By the time he was assassinated, Martin Luther King's popularity had been waning. Some observers argued that the plight of black America was not improving with King's theopolitical ideology of integration, and the rising Black Power movement was challenging the very idea of nonviolent direct action. Meanwhile, some of King's followers felt that he was paying more attention to loving the enemy than to doing something about the suffering of black people. Young, urban black males in particular felt alienated by King's approach, which they believed relied too heavily on the largesse of the white establishment, concentrated too much on southern issues like eliminating segregation and ending black voter disenfranchisement, and ignored the economic problems of blacks in the northern urban ghettos. And amidst the race riots that broke out in 128 cities across the country between 1963 and 1968, King's interpretation of the Black Power movement as "a nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro can't win" lost him the potential support of these urban black males. Disaffected observers identified the various causes of the riots as high unemployment, poor schools, inferior living conditions, the disproportionate drafting of black men for the Vietnam War and the assassination of civil rights activists, issues that they did not feel were being addressed in King's approach.
Given Martin Luther King's waning popularity toward the end of his life, I am beginning to wonder whether he really would have offered his voice on behalf of LGBTQ people. Chatting about this subject with my friend Richard, a straight ally, I wrote, "I agree that you have to wonder whether King would support LGBTQ rights today, even if he felt he couldn't in the 60s. You'd like to think he would given his courageous stands otherwise." I now believe that not only would King not have supported LGBTQ rights but his relevance on social issues would have continued to wane considerably had he survived. Coretta Scott King kept King's words, theology and legacy alive by rightly attaching them to contemporary social justice issues like LGBTQ rights, but, though it is clear that King's words resonate with our cause, and that we can take those words with us as we march for our own civil rights, I'm not certain that we could take the man.
What do you think?