Rev Irene Monroe

The King family's mixed legacy

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | May 22, 2007 4:06 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Alveda King, Bayard Rustin, civil rights, Jerry Falwell, LGBT community, Martin Luther King Jr., MLK, Yolanda King

Yolanda KingThe LGBTQ community as well as the African-American community lost another one of this nation's fierce allies for queer civil rights in the King family - Yolanda King. Fondly known as Yoki, she was the oldest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

"If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you do not have the same rights as other Americans," she said at Chicago's Out & Equal Workplace Summit last year. "You cannot marry, ... you still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this is totally unacceptable."

Like her mother Coretta Scott King, who died in January 2006, Yolanda's faith and experience in the civil rights movement drove her passion for justice.

"The passing of Yolanda King particularly touches those of us whose religious faith calls us to use our theological fervor as the starting point for our fever for justice. Yolanda King stood in the great tradition of her father, a person of faith who knew that love of God without love of neighbor was empty. She lived this in many arenas, including her support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk," wrote Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, director of the Institute for Welcoming Resources. Voelkel was sharing her thoughts on "Where Faith and Justice Meet" with the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, an interfaith network of leaders from pro-LGBT faith, spiritual and religious organizations.

But faith and justice don't always meet. Case in point: the Rev. Jerry Falwell. It would be remiss of me to ignore that both Falwell and King died on the same day. But their faith and justice toward humanity were as different as night and day.

Caught up in the rapture and rhetoric of hatred, Falwell promulgated a ministry of fear, pummelling LGBTQ people with his message that God hates homosexuals. And like many in the black community, Falwell exploited anti-gay rhetoric to denigrate and deny LGBTQ citizens full and equal rights.

"I'm often asked, do you think that the gay and lesbian thing approximates the civil rights issue, like the segregation-integration issue? And it really doesn't. I don't see behavior in any way equating to the way God created us. Gays and lesbians choose to be gay and lesbian, to behave immorally in that way," Falwell said in an interview on "Frontline" on PBS, adding that gays are not a "bona fide minority."

But Falwell was far from the only one who felt that way. While Yolanda, like her mother, was a drum major for LGBTQ justice , there were many in the King clan who moved to a different beat.

Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, aligned herself with the religious right, lending her family name and voice, stating, "No one is enslaving homosexuals or making them sit in the back of the bus. Homosexuality is not a civil right."

And standing at her father's grave site in 2004 with thousands of protesters denouncing marriage equality, King's youngest daughter, Rev. Bernice King, who has been rumored for years to be a lesbian, and Alveda participated in a march against same-sex marriage in Atlanta. On speculating about her father's viewpoint on marriage equality, Bernice said, "I know in my sanctified soul that he did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage."

In January 2005, Newsweek asked Alveda if Martin Luther King would be a champion on gay rights. "No, he would champion the word of God," she said. "If he would have championed gay rights today, he would have done it while he was here. There was ample opportunity for him to champion gay rights during his lifetime, and he did not do so."

And that is true. On the national stage, he talked vociferously about social justice and civil rights for all people, yet his personal life did not reflect that ethos concerning women and gays.

Although in 1998, Coretta Scott King addressed the LGBT group Lambda Legal in Chicago. In her speech, she said queer rights 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.

Sadly, Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was chief organizer and strategist for the 1963 March on Washington that further catapulted Martin Luther King onto the world stage, was not the beneficiary of King's dream.

In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in "Open Hands," a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin stated that he pushed King to speak up on his behalf, but King did not. In John D'Emilo's book "Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin," D'Emilo wrote: "Rustin offered to resign in the hope that he would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay. Basically, King said, 'I can't take on two queers at one time.'"

Would the public King have spoken out on LGBTQ justice? And if he had, would he have risked his already waning popularity with the African-American community and President Johnson?

While Coretta and Yolanda have spoken out on LGBTQ civil rights, I am beginning to ponder now if MLK would have really raised his voice on our behalf.


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Jen Jorczak | May 22, 2007 5:14 PM

Great post, Rev. Welcome aboard!

Incidentally, Alveda King was in town earlier this year speaking at IN Right to Life events--once again, we see intolerance for LGBT rights hand in hand with intolerance for women's rights.

I don't know if MLK kept silent on LGBT rights because he thought we didn't deserve them or because he felt like it was too much to take on all at once--he was facing a huge struggle, just dealing with racial equality. I can't say whether MLK would speak up for marriage equality (or abortion access) today. Sadly, the world lost his voice too soon. But we do have the words he spoke here on earth (he did support access to birth control, and rightly gave the leaders of the early birth control movement their due as his civil disobedience predecessors), from which we can extrapolate expansion of equality just as he extrapolated it from earlier leaders and our constitution.

Each step we've taken is another step toward true freedom and equality for all. It's a shame we can't get them all done at once, but I guess MLK's own decendants are proof that we have to keep working.

Bruce Parker II | May 22, 2007 6:31 PM

WELCOME!!! I am so excited to have you join us.

Great first post, Reverend!

One has to wonder what MLK actually thought about queer people. But he died in 1968, before Stonewall even happened.

But the world will miss Yolanda King.

A. J. Lopp | May 22, 2007 11:52 PM

I will need to do a bit of research to recall the exact context of the event in which King accepted Rustin's resignation. I believe it may have been in regard to one of the emerging civil rights groups, such as possibly the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

I distinctly remember reading, however, that during the months preceeding the 1963 March on Washington, there was controversy about Rustin's being centrally involved and openly gay. (Rustin had also been arrested for a public sexual incident inside a car in an isolated parking lot earlier in his life --- an incident which could have easily been a set-up, but which technically gave him a police record as a sex offender.)

There is also substantial evidence that the FBI was itself trying to implicate King as being homosexual or bisexual. The pressure King was under regarding his sexuality in general was quite intense. Certainly among the white establishment and even among the fractious black civil rights movement, many wanted to smear King any way they could.

NAACP leader Roy Wilkins strongly opposed Rustin being one of the six main leaders organizing the 1963 March. At this point King unshakingly supported Rustin's involvement, and in the end a compromise was reached: A. Philip Randolph would be the official organizer of the March, and it was understood by all that Rustin would be his unofficial but clearly de facto first lieutenant. In the end, Rustin by far did the lion's share of the detail organizing and coordinating.

As Alex Blaze rightfully points out, King was assassinated over a year before the NYC Stonewall Riots. Gay issues had not reached the level of being a bona fide national issue yet, and for King to have made a major public pronouncement regarding GLBT 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."

But King's faithful support of Rustin during and after the 1963 March are convincing to me that, had he lived long enough, he would have taken some form of enlightened viewpoint regarding gay/lesbian rights. 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.

A. J. Lopp | May 23, 2007 12:00 AM

I'm so sorry, but in the above post I forgot to welcome Rev. Irene Monroe --- I truly appreciate this post, Rev. Monroe, and I look forward to your future contributions.

Lynn David | May 23, 2007 3:45 AM

Welcome Reverend Monroe....

I tend not to worry much about what MLK or his descendants think as the King family. 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 WWII. 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 US..... I'll stick with Bayard.