Back when I was still on Tumblr, I wrote an article talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s youngest daughter, Bernice, who has a history of being very homophobic but seems to be trying to turn over a new leaf so to speak. Now, however, we are experiencing the latest outburst from Bernice King on steroids, a.k.a. MLK’s niece Alveda. Since at least the 1990s, Alveda King has been active against both same sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws for gays and lesbians. Her arguments seem to rest on the fact that the Bible condemns homosexuality (conveniently ignoring the Old Testament support for slavery) and that the history of anti-black persecution is not identical to the history of anti-gay persecution (slavery and the Holocaust are not identical either, so should they not be compared?) However, Alveda King may have bitten off more than she can chew in a recent article once again blasting gay rights activists. In an attempt to prove MLK would be homophobic if he were alive today, she stated that, Bayard Rustin, one of the top figures in the Civil Rights Movement and an openly gay man, “attempted to convince Uncle M. L. that homosexual rights were equal with civil rights. Uncle M. L. did not agree, and would not attach the homosexual agenda to the 20th century civil rights struggles. So Mr. Rustin resigned.” Now first of all, if this claim were proven to be true, it would not change the fact that Bayard Rustin is a personal hero of mine, nor that I consider him to be perhaps the greatest American of the 20th century. In such a scenario of Bayard Rustin wanting King to endorse gay rights and King wanting to focus exclusively on racial justice, I would say that in a way both men would have been right. Bayard Rustin would have been right in the sense that there were parallels between racism and homophobia and that gays deserved equal rights just as much as blacks. MLK would have been right that African American rights had the momentum at the time and that it was very risky to attach another, highly unpopular cause to an already highly controversial movement. However, every account that I have read of Bayard Rustin’s decision to resign states that he resigned because his homosexuality was considered a liability to the Civil Rights Movement, not, as Alveda King claims, because MLK would not endorse gay rights. Alveda King not only avoids addressing these accounts, but offers no evidence to support her revisionist claim. Thus, until she proves otherwise, I am virtually positive that she simply made it up out of thin air, especially considering the fact that, as referenced above, my research indicates that Rustin was not heavily involved in promoting gay rights until years after MLK’s death. In my attempts to do research on Rustin who, along with Wendell Phillips, is a crucial influence on me and an important figure in my honors thesis project on formulating a strategy for achieving equal rights for gay and lesbians, I have had the honor and pleasure of corresponding with Walter Naegle, the man who was Rustin’s partner for the last ten years of his life. Naegle has apparently gotten wind of Alveda King’s claims about Rustin and had this to say: “Dear Ms. King,
I was Bayard Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life. I have consulted with scholars and historians, as well as friends who worked with Mr. Rustin during the time that he knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. None of them have seen any evidence in their research to support your allegation that Mr. Rustin tried to influence Dr. King on the matter of civil rights for LGBT people. Nor did Mr. Rustin resign from Dr. King’s staff because of Dr. King’s refusal to advocate for gay rights. Mr. Rustin’s resignation from Dr. King’s staff is well documented in the civil rights histories. I suggest that you consult them. If you have evidence to support your claim, please present it. Otherwise, stop making this ridiculous claim. You are entitled to your opinion about homosexuality. However, as Mr. Rustin’s good friend, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, ‘You are entitled to your opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.’” It should also be noted that Rustin continued working to fight Jim Crow after his resignation from the SCLC. While he resigned in 1960, he later played a crucial role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. No less a civil rights leader than John Lewis—who, unlike Alveda, was heavily involved in the movement—stated that without Rustin’s help, the march would have been like “a bird without wings.” On a final note, Alveda points to a reply MLK made in the 1950s to a letter from a man who was trying to deal with homosexual feelings. In his reply, MLK encouraged him to seek treatment, which was a homophobic statement, though certainly not unusually homophobic for the era. That, in effect, is what Alveda misses. She apparently believes that because MLK was moderately homophobic in an era when virtually everyone, including many gay people were homophobic, that means that homophobia was inherent in his philosophy. To my mind, it does not follow at all that MLK’s viewpoints would not have changed as time went on, and he was confronted with the Gay Rights Movement. Instead, I believe that if he had lived long enough to see much of the development of the Gay Rights Movement, he would have become a staunch supporter of equal rights, just like Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, and Julian Bond, as well as interracial marriage pioneer, Mildred Loving. And just like Garrisonian abolitionists, whom I believe would also be supportive of gay equality if alive today, MLK’s philosophy was influenced by Christianity, but it tacitly denied Biblical infallibility. After all, if King had believed in the infallibility of the Bible, he would have had to have admitted that the Old Testament, as well as arguably the New Testament writings of Paul, condoned the enslavement of his ancestors. Many of his views, even if civil rights were taken off the table, would be an anathema to Christian conservatives. When asked his view of the Supreme Court’s decision to ban teacher-led prayer in public schools, MLK replied, “I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the Congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.” King was a staunch proponent of birth control and said in a 1966 speech that, “There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.” At any rate, Alveda King is another individual famous mostly for her last name. It would be patronizing to presume to know for sure what her reason is for being so homophobic. However, I think it quite possible that she is determined to retaliate for the bigotry she has encountered by finding someone to put beneath her, specifically, every gay person in America. She has abused her uncle’s legacy, and she will be ranked in history with Strom Thurmond, not MLK.