Nationally prominent ministers across the country have recently claimed Martin Luther King Jr. as a source of inspiration and instruction for their various campaigns against same-sex marriage. But the historical evidence suggests that these anti-gay ministers are abusing the legacy of the greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century.
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 belief that fuels so many who support same-sex marriages -- the conviction that homosexuality is an immutable characteristic, similar to left-handedness or, say, 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 good folks point to the presence of the openly gay Bayard Rustin in his inner circle as evidence that King was gay-friendly. But it's a bit more complicated than that.
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. It was a ruthless case of prejudice and discrimination, and it crushed Rustin. Yes, King later reintegrated Rustin into his inner circle, but Rustin's sexuality continued to give King pause.
The historical evidence is actually quite clear: Martin Luther King Jr., never welcomed gays as gays at the front gate of his beloved community.
But this does not mean that it is accurate for opponents of same-sex marriage to claim King as part of their camp. For though he never welcomed gays at the front gate of the beloved community, King certainly left behind the key -- his unqualified belief that the government has no compelling reason to abridge or deny an individual's freedom to love and marry whomever he or she chooses.
King articulated this 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 this statement unqualified, its implications are explosive, extending far beyond issues of color and ethnicity. Indeed, by implication, the principle extends to gays and lesbians, just as it does 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, of course, but we can.
As we celebrate his life yet again, we can take King's principle of freedom more seriously than the civil rights leader himself ever did -- and help fulfill the hopes of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals who simply want to be free to love and marry without discrimination.
Let's honor King's legacy of freedom by swinging the gate wide open and supporting same-sex marriage.