What Would King Say Today?

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd after delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.

"On Religion" January, 26, 2008, The Patriot Ledger

My church recently had a special service honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is a somber reading of some of his most powerful speeches and writings interspersed with the story of his life and times. The service is very moving, very emotional, and we do it every year. It’s hard to believe that only one generation ago, in our own country, people were being shot, bombed, killed, hanged, arrested, and beaten all because of a dream that all God’s children get a berth on the boat. It’s a dream that we all should have shared to begin with, not one that some young black southern preacher had to fight and die to tell us.

At the same time in the daily papers we read about Episcopal churches fighting painfully over the ordination of a gay bishop; American Baptists losing more congregations because the denomination is not more strongly opposed to homosexuality; and a congregation in Marshfield that is debating becoming independent because its national synod has voted to support same-sex marriage. What would King say to this issue that splits and tears at so many of our churches today?

Homosexuality was in the closet in King’s day so it’s hard to know for certain. There are, however, a few clues as to what his personal views might have been. Perhaps the most relevant is that his widow, Coretta Scott King, often said that he clearly was supportive of gay rights.

After his death she campaigned for gay rights up to her dying day, and believed that she was carrying on Martin’s ministry. As an odd tribute to that cause, her funeral was picketed by the famously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church who marched outside with signs saying ‘‘No Fags in King’s Dream.’’

In a speech in 1998, at the 30th anniversary of his death, Coretta linked King’s ministry to the work of liberation for gays and lesbians.

‘‘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,’’ she told the audience. ‘‘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.’’

Another interesting clue is that several of King’s supporters were gay.

In fact, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell once threatened King that he would accuse him of having an affair with one of them if he didn’t call off a protest of a Democratic convention. But the accusation was so silly that Powell finally dropped it.

The most famous gay person among King’s advisors was Bayard Rustin. He was a consummate organizer and the driving force behind the 1963 march on Washington. He was also openly gay and had once been jailed on a ‘‘morals’’ charge, which meant that he had been accused of having a male lover. Against tremendous pressure, King stood by him to the very end.

Over the years huge numbers of people pushed King to drop Rustin from his inner circle, but he refused. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover leaked wire taps and memos about Rustin’s homosexuality hoping it would tarnish the civil rights movement. Senator Strom Thurman denounced him as a sexual pervert from the Senate floor. Even President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy demanded that King drop Rustin. Even the Christian ministers who supported him and the board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference pushed him to drop Rustin. But he refused. A good person is a good person, King would say. Regardless of who he was or what he was. It was not his role to judge.

One of the most important theological themes throughout King’s life was his belief in what he called the ‘‘beloved community,’’ his way of describing the vision that God had for all of creation. God did not intend that the Earth be embroiled in wars, bigotry, economic disparity, or ethnic cleansing, but a ‘‘holy mountain’’ where ‘‘they will not hurt or destroy.’’

He once said that for us to survive as a people, ‘‘our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.’’ And that is because ‘‘we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.’’ In his first article, back in 1956 at the height of the Montgomery bus boycott, he stated that the goals of the newly formed SCLC were ‘‘reconciliation ... redemption, the creation of the beloved community.’’ It’s hard to believe that he could believe in such a sweeping vision of God’s inclusiveness and at the same time believe that some people in God’s creation were more ‘‘equal’’ than others. Soon after he wrote those words he invited Rustin to come down to Montgomery and assist him in organizing the boycott.

Again, it is difficult to be certain of the non-public beliefs of a man who died so many years ago, but it’s also hard to believe that someone who had a heart so big would be able to close it to those who had a sexual orientation different from his own. In 1968 he preached a powerful ‘‘sermon’’ at Riverside Church in New York City, announcing his opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam. He closed with these words, which quote from Isaiah 40: ‘‘Our only hope lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world ...With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo ... and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be straight and the rough places plain.’’’