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Coretta's Big Dream: Coretta Scott King on Gay Rights

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If Bernice King, now head of the King Center in Atlanta, wants to advance her father's dream at this year's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, she can do no better than to follow the courageous example set by her mother, Coretta Scott King, a longtime advocate for LGBT rights.

Mrs. King was -- and remains -- a hero in the LGBT community. And with good reason. For more than twenty years before her death in 2006, she fought tirelessly for gay rights and linked the civil rights movement with the LGBT rights movement, believing all the while that her work was a faithful expression of the inclusive dream shared by her husband.

Mrs. King's first public foray into the gay rights movement occurred during her steady leadership of the 20th anniversary of the 1963 march. During the run-up to the anniversary, King withstood the tide of social conservatism and pledged her support for the Gay and Civil Rights Act then before Congress -- a groundbreaking bill that would have prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Encouraged by gay and lesbian leaders, Mrs. King also made space for the black poet and openly lesbian Audre Lorde in the anniversary rally's line-up of speakers. Given the homophobia of some civil rights leaders taking part in the rally, King's decision to make room for a lesbian speaker was nothing short of prophetic. So was Lorde's brief speech:

I am Audre Lorde, speaking for the National Coalition of Black Gays. Today's march openly joins the black civil rights movement and the gay civil rights movement in the struggles we have always shared, the struggle for jobs, for health, for peace and for freedom. We marched in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King and dared to dream that freedom would include us, because not one of us is free to choose the terms of our living until all of us are free to choose the terms of our living.

Mrs. King's public advocacy for gay and lesbian rights increased after the Supreme Court ruled, in Bowers v. Hardwick, that gays did not have a constitutional right to engage in consensual sodomy. After that shocking decision in 1986, King's longtime friend, Winston Johnson, came out to her and asked her to speak at a Human Rights Campaign Fund dinner in New York. She happily agreed and took the occasion to express her "solidarity with the gay and lesbian movement."

In the mid-1980s, Mrs. King also counseled and comforted gay friends suffering from the ravages of HIV and AIDs. With help from her special assistant Lynn Cothren, an openly gay man, she created a welcoming environment at the King Center and used the Center's resources to educate the local community about the disease. King was so touched when one of her close gay friends died that she hosted his family and circle of friends for a quiet day of sewing stitches on a panel that would become part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The green panel with gold stitching, still available for viewing at the Quilt's website, offers a simple message: "Michael Genser -- Living the Dream."

Mrs. King's advocacy continued into the 1990s and the twenty-first century.

In 1993 she held a press conference urging President Clinton to stop the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Many gays and lesbians, she stated at the time, had marched in the civil rights movement, giving her every reason to return the support they had so freely offered African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s.

In 1994 Mrs. King stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank as they introduced the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which would have prohibited discrimination against workers based on their sexual orientation.

And in 2002, after a vicious beating of a gay man at Morehouse College, Mrs. King roundly denounced the "toxic" virus of homophobia and called for an increase in public funding for diversity education.

Her fearless approach to gay rights reached new heights when she publicly denounced President George W. Bush's support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and defining marriage as "a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife." Speaking before a college audience in 2004, Mrs. King stated: "Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union." Even more pointedly, she added: "A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing to protect traditional marriages." The implication of her point was clear: President Bush had wrongly endorsed gay bashing.

From the earliest days of her advocacy, Coretta Scott King remained firmly convinced that her husband would have supported her campaign for LGBT rights. She frequently cited his claim that "justice is indivisible," and often stated that she took inspiration from his inclusive dream and the awful ways it remained unfulfilled.

At last, Coretta Scott King believed that by fighting for gay rights, she was simply helping to build "the beloved community of Martin Luther King, Jr., where all people can live together in a spirit of trust and understanding, harmony, love and peace."

She was right about that, and I was glad to see her daughter Bernice, known for her opposition to gay marriage, finally showing public signs of support for it. Let's hope she follows the example of her mother's bravery and dreams anew -- with love, justice and peace for all -- as she celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March.