As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this weekend and next week 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.
As I comb through numerous books and essays learning more about King’s philandering, sexist attitude about women at home and in the movement, and his relationship with Bayard Rustin, I am wondering would King be a public advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights?
James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology and author of a book and several articles on King states that we must understand King within the historical context of the Black Church. And 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 his personal life did not reflect the same ethos concerning women and gays. And 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 my public address I gave at the Gill Foundation’s National Outgiving Conference in 2007, I said, “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. And an example of that understanding is when Martin Luther 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 justice.”
This statement clearly includes LGBTQ justice but would King have spoken on this subject at that time and even now?
King’s now deceased wife says yes.
In 1998, Coretta Scott King addressed the LGBT group Lambda Legal in Chicago. In her speech, she 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, Rustin was always the man behind the scenes 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 Rights Movement had nothing to do with Rustin, and they intentionally set out rumors that King was gay and used his close friendship with Rustin as proof.
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,” Rustin stated. “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.
Gay historian John D’Emilio, author of “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” tells us: “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.”
And, one of Rustin’s associates recollects: “Basically King said I can’t take on two queers at on time.”
When Rustin was asked about King’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….”
King’s popularity was waning before his assassination. For example, 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 non-violent 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 non-violent ideology relied too heavily on the largess 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 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 theopolitical ideology of non-violent direct action.
Given all that waning popularity, I am beginning to ponder now if King really would have raised his voice on our behalf.
— Rev. Irene Monroe, a self-described “African-American feminist theologian,” is an ordained minister, religion columnist and motivational speaker.