This article appeared in The
Hutchinson Report, Alternet
The sight of the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., standing at the gravesite of her father with thousands of demonstrators
to denounce gay marriage was painful and insulting. The Rev. Bernice
King and the march organizers deliberately chose King's gravesite
to imply that King might well have stood with her and them in their
protest. Given her father's relentless and uncompromising battle
against discrimination during his life, it defies belief that he
would back an anti-gay campaign.
But it's not the first time that a King family member
has sullied King's name and legacy to torpedo gay rights. In 1998,
King's niece, Alveda King, barnstormed the country speaking at rallies
against gay rights legislation. In case anyone missed the King family
connection, her group was named, "King for America." Gay
rights groups everywhere countered King's repent-and-save-yourself
message to gays by quoting a public statement Coretta Scott King
issued in 1996 in which she noted that King would be a champion
of gay rights if he were alive.
In this case, King's daughter was careful not to mention
gay marriage in her talk. Her mentor and March organizer, Bishop
Eddie Long, cautiously downplayed the issue. But Bernice King is
an outspoken evangelical, and in the last couple of years she and
other black evangelicals have marched, protested, wrote letters
and petitions denouncing gay marriage. Polls show that their hostility
to gay marriage is much stronger than that of white evangelicals.
Long prominently touts Bush's federal amendment banning gay marriage
on his church Web site.
King's day, though, gay rights was invisible on America's public
policy radarscope, and homosexuality, among blacks and whites, was
hushed up. There's not a word in any of his speeches or writings
about homosexuality or whether he believed the civil rights struggle
was inclusive of gays.
There's a way, however, to gauge what King's feelings
were on the issue, and what he might say and do about it today.
That gauge is the long time personal and political relationship
that King had with Bayard Rustin. Best known as the driving force
behind the historic 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was a close
King associate, ally, supporter, and a known homosexual. In 1953,
Rustin was convicted of morals charges. In the frozen mood of that
day and time that was the parlance for homosexual acts. It carried
a quick, and sometimes, stiff jail term. King knew this, the Kennedys,
top FBI officials, black elected officials, civil rights leaders,
and the tight circle of black ministers around King, knew it as
That didn't deter King from embracing Rustin. At the
high point of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott that launched King
into the national spotlight and over the vehement opposition of
black ministers who called homosexuals and Rustin unsavory and evil,
King invited Rustin to come to Montgomery as
an advisor. A year later, King turned to Rustin and asked him to
draft the resolutions and the organizational charter of his fledging
Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He demanded that the SCLC
board, mostly composed of black ministers, hire Rustin as its coordinator
and publicist. King didn't win that one. The board flatly turned
him down, and though it was unstated, Rustin's homosexuality was
a major reason.
The issue continued to dog King and his relationship
with Rustin. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell publicly threatened
to accuse King of having a homosexual affair with Rustin if he didn't
call off planned demonstrations at the 1960 Democratic Convention.
King didn't buckle to Powell's blackmail threat and went ahead with
the demonstrations anyway.
During the next few years, the assault on Rustin's
homosexuality, and the pressure on King to dump him, escalated.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, busy with his blatantly illegal spy
campaign against King, publicly released wiretaps of scurrilous
remarks King associates made about Rustin's homosexuality. On the
eve of the March on Washington in 1963, South Carolina Sen. Strom
Rustin on the Senate floor as a sexual pervert, and inserted a copy
of his 1953 arrest booking slip in the Congressional Record. The
Kennedys also flatly demanded that King get rid of him. King did
not publicly break with Rustin. And when he did eventually distance
himself politically from Rustin, he gave no public hint that his
homosexuality was an issue.
King risked much to work with and defend Rustin during
the tumultuous battles of the civil rights era. He valued him as
an ally and a major player in the struggle. He also believed that
deeply embodied in the civil rights fight was a person's right to
be whom and what he was. While King may have praised his daughter
for having the courage and conviction to march for her beliefs,
bigotry is still bigotry, whether it's racial or sexual preference.
He would not have marched by her side
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political
analyst. He is a featured columnist for Alternet
and African-American newspapers nationally. He is the publisher
Hutchinson Report Newsletter, an on-line public issues newsletter.