Op-Ed: Would MLK Have Fought for LGBTQ Rights?
In the Civil Rights movement Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scene and a large part of that had to due with the fact that he was gay. Because of their own homophobia, many African American ministers involved in the Civil Right movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and they intentionally rumored throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.
In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in “Open Hands,” a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalled that difficult period quite vividly. Rustin stated, “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 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 him on the issue to speak up on his behalf King did not. In John D’Emilo’s book Lost Prophet: The Life and times of Bayard Rustin he wrote the following on the matter:
“Rustin offered to resign in the hope that his 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 on time,” one of Rustin’s associates recollected later.
When Rustin was asked about MLK’s views on gays in a March 1987 interview with Redvers Jeanmarie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness.... “
MLK’s popularity was waning before his assassination. For example, many observers argued that the plight of black America was not improving with King's the political ideology of integration. The rising Black Power movement thus challenged his movement of nonviolent direct action.
Followers of King felt he gave more attention to loving the enemy than doing something about the suffering of black people. Young urban black males in particularly felt alienated from the civil rights leadership of King because his nonviolent ideology relied too heavily on the largesse of the white establishment, concentrated too much on eliminating segregation and winning the right to vote in the South and ignored the economic problems of blacks in the northern urban ghettos.
King's interpretation of Black Power as “a nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro can't win” lost him these urban black males as followers when race riots broke out across the country in 128 cities during the period of 1963 to 1968. Disaffected observers identified the causes for 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, none of which they saw addressed by King's the political ideology of nonviolent direct action.
Given MLK’s waning popularity, I am beginning to ponder now if MLK would have really raised his voice on our behalf.
While chatting about this subject online with my friend Richard, an LGBTQ ally, he 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 not only believe that King would not have supported LGBTQ rights, but his voice and importance on social issues would have continued to wane considerably. Coretta keeps King’s words, theology and legacy alive by rightly attaching them to present-day contemporary social justice issues.
King’s words resonate resoundingly to our cause, and we can take King’s words to march along side us, I'm not certain we could take the man.
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