Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Gay America and Martin Luther King Jr.: Why LGBTQ Equality Is His Unfinished Agenda

mlkflag-719751Atlanta, Georgia – In the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his family launched an activist Christian movement that changed the world, preparations are in full swing for the national holiday that bears his memory.  What about Dr. King’s legacy and the human rights struggle today?  Would Dr. King consider the lives and liberties of LGBTQ people his own unfinished business?

During his own lifetime, Dr. King’s record of public support for gay and lesbian people in his own movement was neither courageous nor even positive.  Dr. King, for example, often considered Bayard Rustin, the gay, Quaker activist who proved indispensable to the organization of the 1963 March on Washington, to be a liability to his movement.  The New Civil Rights Movement relates how Rustin was smuggled out of Montgomery, Alabama during the 1956 Bus Boycott with the assent of MLK because Rustin was thought to be a liability to King, the nascent movement, and other African American civil rights leaders. Commenting on the documentary film, Brother Outsider, made to advance Rustin’s legacy, his life partner, Walter Naegle wrote: “A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.  Despite these achievements,” Naegle went on to say, “Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.”  According to Rev. Irene Monroe, an African American lesbian who writes for the Huffington Post, Rustin once offered to resign rather than be seen as a liability to the movement.  She notes that King did not refuse Rustin’s offer, saying of Rustin and another gay associate, “I can’t take on two queers at one time.”  Surely, Bayard Rustin and other faithful workers in the non-violent civil rights movement deserved better.

Liberal Christian leaders disagree on whether Martin Luther King Jr. would have evolved into a human rights advocate, had he lived. Irene Monroe is convinced that he would not, fearing the loss of support in the Black Church. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush thinks that King would have eventually become an outspoken ally of gays and lesbians.  Raushenbush, heir to the mantle of his ancestor’s leadership as a progressive Christian, argues as Senior Editor for Religion in the Huffington Post that King’s attitude toward LGBTQ people, while drawing major aspects of the anti-gay ideology of his day, was surprisingly temperate.  Contemporaries among black and white ministers, such as Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Rev. Billy Graham, were decidedly more negative toward “homosexuals” than Dr. King.

Mrs. Coretta Scott King [Equality Matters image]

Mrs. Coretta Scott King [Equality Matters image]

King’s own family is divided over the question, as well.  His niece, Alveda King, and his youngest and only surviving child, Rev. Bernice King, strongly deny that he would have supported the LGBTQ rights movement in any form.  In 2004, the cousins marched together in an Atlanta demonstration against same-sex marriage and gay rights. But King’s now-deceased widow, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, unequivocally affirmed that her martyred husband would have championed the rights of all people, including those of LGBTQ people.  In a famous remark made near to the 30th anniversary of the death of Dr. King, Mrs. King asserted, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice.  But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’  I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

Mrs. King understood that in order for her late husband’s dream to remain vital over the passage of the years, it had to be made relevant to the emerging struggles of modern oppressed minorities.  She, more than anyone else, reveals the genius of Dr. King’s Beloved Community: every generation enlarges it with new citizens of a freer, better, more perfect union.  With uncommon perception and insight, Mrs. King said to the audience at the 25th Anniversary Luncheon of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, “Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement.  Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own.”  Speaking vicariously for her husband, Mrs. King concluded, “And I salute their contributions.” 

As Mrs. King perceived and advocated, the struggle her husband gave his life to pursue runs parallel to the LGBTQ rights movement.  Racial justice, world peace, justice for workers and the poor, and the cause of non-violence are all still unrequited in the world today, and are the continuing responsibility of the Civil Rights Movement.  But as surely as her husband championed the cause of social change for the betterment of all, LGBTQ equality is just as surely Dr. King’s legacy and unfinished business.

Happy MLK Day from the Unfinished Lives Project Team!

January 21, 2013 Posted by | African Americans, Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights Movement, Coretta Scott King, Georgia, GLBTQ, Heterosexism and homophobia, LGBTQ, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Social Justice Advocacy, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coretta Scott King on Gay and Lesbian Rights: Happy MLK Day from Unfinished Lives

‎”Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.” ~ Coretta Scott King, 25th anniversary luncheon for Lambda Defense and Education Fund, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1998

January 17, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Bisexual persons, gay men, Illinois, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Lesbian women, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Racism, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, transgender persons | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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