Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King, made it clear before her death that she supported LGBT equality. Moreover, she stated that her late husband would have supported the movement for LGBT equality. What King himself thought we will likely never know with definitive certainty. He was shot down in 1968 and never really expressed his views on LGBT equality, although one of his right hand men, Bayard Rustin, was a gay man. I believe that King would support today's movement for LGBT equality. Today, while driving between the law firm offices today, I heard most of King's truly amazing speech when he came out against the Vietnam War (I love satellite radio). Based on his compassion for and statements about the Vietnamese people, I believe that he would have supported LGBT equality for similar reasons. My blogger and activist friend, Rev. Irene Monroe, who I met at the 2008 LGBT blogger summit in Washington, D.C., has a piece in The Advocate that looks at this question. Here are excerpts:
This Martin Luther King Jr. holiday reminds me how Alabama has always been a troubling state when it comes to upholding the civil rights of its denizens.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activism began in the unwelcoming “Heart of Dixie” in 1955 when on a cold December evening, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, birthing the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott was the first of what would be many historic marches and protests that would catapult King onto a national stage. His acts of civil disobedience in the 1950s and 1960s helped elevate the country’s moral consciousness as Alabama struggled with theirs. Sadly, in 2016, Alabama is still struggling.
When, on January 8, the Mobile County Probate Office resumed issuance of marriage licenses, I was asked by an editor, “What would be MLK’s thoughts about the modern LGBTQ movement and the place of people of color in it?” As I comb through numerous books and essays learning more about King’s philandering, his sexist attitude about women at home and in the movement, and his relationship with Bayard Rustin, I too wonder, Would King today be a public advocate for LGBTQ rights?
King’s now-deceased wife would say yes.
In 1998, Coretta Scott King addressed the LGBT group Lambda Legal in Chicago. In her speech, she said LGBTQ equality and civil rights were the same.
“I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King’s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people,” she said.
Speculations on what King's views would be vary within African-American LGBTQ communities. But an overwhelming number in these communities look more to Bayard Rustin — then and now — than to King as a spokesman for supporting our civil rights.
“I tend not to worry much about what MLK would do. I tend to look at someone such as Bayard Rustin as one prime driving force in civil rights and other activism. Rustin was there before World War II. And he never wavered, always looking for something new. It was Rustin who schooled King in Gandhi’s ideas. Rustin has simply said that the GLBT movement is the inheritor of civil rights activism in the U.S. I’ll stick with Bayard,” a blogger wrote me.
In the civil rights movement, Rustin was always the man behind the scenes, and a large part of that had to due with the fact that he was gay. Because of their own homophobia, many African-American ministers involved in the civil rights movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and they intentionally spread rumors that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.
We must understand King within the historical context of the homophobic black church; because of his association with it, I cannot envision him endorsing marriage equality. But I, like so many within the African-American community — straight or gay — cannot fathom King marching against same-sex marriage as his youngest daughter, Rev. Bernice King, did.
King was assassinated over a year before the Stonewall riots. Gay rights had not reached the level of being a bona fide national issue yet, and for King to have made a major public pronouncement regarding LGBTQ rights would have been historically premature. Note the flak he took even for speaking out against the Vietnam War — it was charged that he was overstepping his role and the war was not his issue.
“Had [King] lived long enough, he would have taken some form of enlightened viewpoint regarding gay/lesbian rights,” a friend told me emphatically. “Personally, I speculate that probably he and his wife had private conversations regarding this issue, and I believe that Coretta’s unwavering support of GLBT rights throughout the rest of her life reflects the direction of those discussions.”