Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s status as the country’s most influential civil rights leader has led to considerable speculation in recent years about his views on LGBT people during his lifetime and whether he would have supported the modern LGBT rights movement. While some of King’s advisors and family members have spoken out in recent years against gay rights, others have suggested that because of his politics toward the end of his life, he likely would have been supportive.
In an excerpt from a 1987 essay by openly gay March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, recently published in The Advocate, Rustin said, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me … My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.”
Posthumous speculation aside, the historical record provides only rare glimpses of King’s views on sexuality. Chapel Hill-area Civil Rights Leader Quinton Baker recalls thinking that King “was not very comfortable with gay people in the movement,” particularly with the “flamboyant” nature of Rustin’s sexuality.”
The “problem for the movement” to which Rustin refers were ongoing tensions within civil rights organizations, both because of his sexuality and because of his previous affiliations with Communist organizations. By the 1960s, conservatives had established a long history of linking LGBT people with the threat of communist infiltration, and accusing civil rights organizations and leaders of both in efforts to discredit them.
From the beginning of his involvement with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin was treated as a possible liability, particularly when working in southern states. His sexuality also became fodder for internal movement conflicts like when Harlem minister and US congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. threatened to publicly accuse King of having a sexual relationship with Rustin in what was ultimately a successful attempt to drive Rustin out of the SCLC.
Rustin’s sexuality became more visible in the movement on a national stage in August 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington, when South Carolina US Senator Strom Thurmond accused Rustin of being a communist and a homosexual in front of the United States Congress. But instead of allowing Rustin to throw himself under the bus as he had done with the SCLC, Rustin’s fellow civil rights leaders, the Black press, and African Americans across the country recognized the need for racial solidarity and rallied to support him.
For more about Rustin, King, and the sexual politics of the civil rights movement, check out Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.