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Michael G. Long Headshot

Southern Baptists, Gay Rights and the Freedom Rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Southern Baptists have just passed a resolution declaring their regret "that homosexual rights activists and those who are promoting the recognition of 'same-sex marriage' have misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement." However reasonable it may sound, the resolution reveals a basic failure to understand the language of freedom used by Martin Luther King, Jr., the de facto leader of the modern civil rights movement.

King commented on homosexuality in an advice column he penned for Ebony magazine in 1958. A young man had written him for advice about homosexual feelings he was struggling with, and King replied that he considered such feelings to be problematic, "probably not innate," and in need of psychiatric care.

That's not exactly the type of rhetoric that fuels so many who support same-sex marriages -- the conviction that homosexuality is an immutable characteristic, similar to left-handedness or the color of one's skin.

Unfortunately, too, that's all King ever stated, at least in public. As psychiatrists decoupled homosexuality from pathology, as progressive Christians depicted homosexuality as a gift from God, and as national headlines reported on gay rights pioneers marching on the White House -- all during his lifetime -- King remained deafeningly silent on homosexuality and gay rights.

Yes, some observers point to the presence of the openly gay Bayard Rustin in his inner circle as evidence that King was gay-friendly even if his public rhetoric did not indicate as much. But in 1960 King cut his formal ties to the brilliant strategist after Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem had threatened to tell the media that King and Rustin were having a gay affair. Even though the threat was hollow, King was terrified of such negative publicity, and so he banished Rustin for a few years.

The historical evidence is actually quite clear: The public rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., never welcomed gays at the front gate of his beloved community.

But this does not mean that it is right for Southern Baptists to fault homosexual rights activists for appropriating the rhetoric of the civil rights movement led by King. For though he never welcomed gays at the front gate of the beloved community, King certainly left behind a rhetorical key -- his expressed belief that the government has no compelling reason to abridge or deny an adult's freedom to love and marry whomever he or she chooses.

King articulated this prophetic principle of freedom in a 1958 interview that addressed interracial marriage. "When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom," King stated. "It hasn't given me the possibility of alternatives."

Because he left his rhetoric of freedom unqualified, its implications remain potentially explosive, able to extend far beyond issues of color and ethnicity. Indeed, by implication, King's principle of freedom can easily extend to gays and lesbians, just as it can to all other adults, simply by virtue of their humanity -- their God-given freedom as individuals to love and marry whomever they desire.

King never stated this about gays. Unfortunately, he was too prejudiced to see or at least articulate the implications of his own rhetoric. Just like the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson, King expressed a philosophy whose full importance he never quite grasped, let alone enacted.

But just as King took Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence more seriously than the prejudiced founding father himself did, we can take King's rhetoric of freedom more seriously than the civil rights leader himself ever did -- and rightly celebrate adult gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals who simply want to be free to love and marry without discrimination.

What better way to honor the rhetoric of freedom expressed by a black Baptist preacher who gave his life while trying to ensure that all of us would get to the Promised Land?