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The King family’s mixed legacy

by Rev. Irene Monroe

Yolanda ‘Yoki’ King died May 15
from possible heart failure complications.
The LGBT community, as well as the African-American community, lost another one of this nation’s fierce allies for queer civil rights in the King family — Yolanda King. Fondly known as Yoki, she was the oldest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

“If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you do not have the same rights as other Americans,” she said at Chicago’s Out & Equal Workplace Summit last year. “You cannot marry, … you still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this is totally unacceptable.”

Like her mother Coretta Scott King, who died in January 2006, Yolanda’s faith and experience in the civil rights movement drove her passion for justice.

“The passing of Yolanda King particularly touches those of us whose religious faith calls us to use our theological fervor as the starting point for our fever for justice. Yolanda King stood in the great tradition of her father, a person of faith who knew that love of God without love of neighbor was empty. She lived this in many arenas, including her support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk,” wrote Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, director of the Institute for Welcoming Resources. Voelkel was sharing her thoughts on “Where Faith and Justice Meet” with the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, an interfaith network of leaders from pro-LGBT faith, spiritual and religious organizations.

But faith and justice don’t always meet. Case in point: the Rev. Jerry Falwell. It would be remiss of me to ignore that both Falwell and King died on the same day. But their attitudes concerning faith and justice were as different as night and day.

Caught up in the rapture and rhetoric of hatred, Falwell promulgated a ministry of fear, pummeling LGBT people with his message that God hates homosexuals. And like many in the black community, Falwell exploited anti-gay rhetoric to denigrate and deny LGBT citizens full and equal rights.

“I’m often asked, do you think that the gay and lesbian thing approximates the civil rights issue, like the segregation-integration issue? And it really doesn’t. I don’t see behavior in any way equating to the way God created us. Gays and lesbians choose to be gay and lesbian, to behave immorally in that way,” Falwell said in an interview on “Frontline” on PBS, adding that gays are not a “bona fide minority.”

But Falwell was far from the only one who felt that way. While Yolanda, like her mother, was a drum major for LGBT justice, there were others in the King clan who danced to a different beat.
Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, aligned herself with the religious right, lending her family name and voice to its cause, stating, “No one is enslaving homosexuals or making them sit in the back of the bus. Homosexuality is not a civil right.”

King’s youngest daughter, Rev. Bernice King — who has been rumored for years to be a lesbian — participated in a march against same-sex marriage in Atlanta along with thousands of supporters and her cousin Alveda. On speculating about her father’s viewpoint on marriage equality, Bernice said, “I know in my sanctified soul that he did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”

In January 2005, Newsweek asked Alveda if Martin Luther King would be a champion on gay rights. “No, he would champion the word of God,” she said. “If he would have championed gay rights today, he would have done it while he was here. There was ample opportunity for him to champion gay rights during his lifetime, and he did not do so.”

And that is true. On the national stage, he talked vociferously about social justice and civil rights for all people, yet his personal life did not reflect that ethos concerning women and gays.
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 a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in “Open Hands,” a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin stated that he pushed King to speak up on his behalf, but King did not.

In John D’Emilo’s book “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” D’Emilo wrote: “Rustin offered to resign in the hope that he 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 one time.’”

Would the public King have spoken out on LGBT justice? And if he had, would he have risked his already waning popularity with the African-American community and President Lyndon B. Johnson?

While Coretta and Yolanda have spoken out on LGBT civil rights, I am beginning to ponder now if MLK would have really raised his voice on our behalf.

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