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.
In 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
Thurmond denounced 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.