Bayard Rustin at a news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington in the Statler Hotel, August 27, 1963. (Photo: Library of Congress. Photographer: Warren K. Leffler)
Martin Luther King's Dream Includes Gays
Martin Luther King's stance on LGBT justice? The debate rages on. No, King never spoke directly about gay rights, but his actions during the planning for the Great March on Washington in support of out homosexual Bayard Rustin say all that needs to be said.
By James A. Lopata
Just how much would Martin Luther King, Jr. support today's fight for LGBT justice?
A debate has been raging for years concerning this question. Leading the strongly pro-gay crusade is King's widow Coretta Scott King who defended her position in 1998, saying:
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.
In the opposing camp stands King's youngest daughter Bernice King who remarked in 2004:
I know deep down in my sanctified soul that he did not take a bullet for same-sex unions.
The fact is that no public record exists of King's words on the lesbian, gay, transgender, or bisexual justice.
But if actions speak louder than words, then we have clear evidence of King's support for gay people, or at least for one gay person, a gay person — actually, the term was “homosexual” in the 1960s — whose public avowal of his homosexuality threatened to derail the very Civil Rights project King held so dear.
That homosexual was Bayard Rustin.
And in the book Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, historian John D'Emilio portrays King — even in defiance of his other advisors — as one who always backed the out homosexual Rustin.
In one poignant example of King's support, D'Emilio describes a critical moment in the planning for what would become known as the Great March on Washington of 1963 where King would deliver his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech.
The planners had just decided as a group that despite Bayard Rustin's superior, activist and organizational abilities, they would not make him director of the March.
Instead, they asked A. Phillip Randolph, a man renowned for his labor activism on behalf of African-Americans — in fact, a seated statue of him in the waiting area to the Back Bay commuter and railway station in Boston commemorates his efforts as the first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Randolph immediately said he would decline the director position unless he would be allowed to appoint his deputy, and that that deputy would be Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was a risky choice, and not just because King's advisors were uncomfortable with his homosexuality. Rustin had been convicted in 1953 of "sex perversion," which, at the time, was criminal activity known as consensual sodomy.
U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina, a powerful voice opposing African-American social justice work, made good fodder of Rustin’s conviction, attempting to discredit the entire Civil Rights movement on the floor of the U.S. Senate by tying it to the work of a “sexual pervert,” i.e. Rustin.
With so much at stake, it would have been easy for Randolph, King, and the other planners to simply dismiss the “sexual pervert” Rustin from any active participation.
Randolph, fully understanding the hazards, turned to Martin Luther King, Jr., and asked directly if King supported Rustin as deputy director of the important March. King said:
"I vote yes."
With those three words, even the most reluctant of the group acquiesced.
Gay people like me may not be blood relatives of Martin Luther King, Jr., but many of us count ourselves as sons and daughters in his family of justice.
Clearly, I side with Coretta Scott King in her assessment of King's support of LGBT rights. I know in my sanctified heart that King put his life at stake for social injustice everywhere.
I believe that if King were asked today if he supported gender identity expression rights, civil marriage for same-sex couples, and sexual orientation non-discrimination legislation, he would say:
"I vote yes."
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