As we celebrate MLK Day 2010, we no longer have to hold King up to a God-like standard. All the hagiographies written about King immediately following his assassination in the previous century have come under scrutiny as we come to understand all of King — his greatness as well as his flaws and human foibles.
In combing through numerous books and essays and learning more about King’s philandering, sexist attitude about women at home and in the movement, and relationship with Bayard Rustin, I wonder if King be a public advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer rights?
James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology and author of a book and several articles on King, argues that we must understand King within the historical context of the Black Church. In so doing, I find it ironic that the public King we witnessed on a national stage talked vociferously about social justice and civil rights for all people, yet in his personal life he did not reflect the same ethos concerning women and gays. Would the public King have spoken out on LGBTQ justice, risking his already waning popularity with the African American community and President Lyndon Johnson?
In an address I gave at the Gill Foundation’s National Outgiving Conference in 2007, I said that “If Dr. Martin Luther King were standing up for LGBTQ rights today, the Black community would drop him, too.”
King understood the interconnections of struggles. For example, King said, “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 injustice.”
This statement clearly includes LGBTQ justice, but would King have spoken on this subject at that time or even now?
King’s now-deceased wife says “Yes.”
In 1998, addressing the LGBT group Lambda Legal in Chicago, Coretta Scott King said queer rights and civil rights were 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.
Sadly, Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was chief organizer and strategist for the 1963 March on Washington that further catapulted Martin Luther King onto the world stage, was not the beneficiary of King’s dream.
In the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scenes, largely because 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; they intentionally rumored throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.
In a spring 1987 interview in “Open Hands,” a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalls that difficult period quite vividly: “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 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 Jean Marie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness…. “
MLK’s popularity was waning before his assassination. Many observers argued that the plight of black America was not improving with King’s theopolitical 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 King’s Civil Rights leadership 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.
And King’s interpretation of Black Power as “a nihilistic philosophy borne out of the conviction that the Negro can’t win” lost him following among these urban black males when race riots broke out across the country in 128 cities from 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 theopolitical ideology of nonviolent direct action.
And given MLK’s waning popularity, I am beginning to ponder now if MLK would have really raised his voice on our behalf. What are your thoughts?