As we approach what would have been the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded of the longstanding debate over whether or not King would have supported gay rights, particularly gay marriage, had he lived longer. Looking to his family provides few definitive answers, since they have been heavily divided on the issue. Coretta and his oldest daughter, Yolanda, for example, favored gay rights, while his youngest daughter, Bernice, and his niece, Alveda, oppose gay rights. Alveda, in particular, was humiliated after making up a story about her uncle’s opposition to gay rights. And, of course, one can never be certain precisely how someone would have evolved over the course of forty-plus years. King’s former driver, Civil Rights Movement veteran Tom Houck, certainly takes the position that his old boss would have become a gay rights supporter. But nobody can really say for sure. Nevertheless, there are reasons why we can make an educated guess. Please note that most of what I am saying here about King’s views specifically has been covered by other writers, but I will paraphrase it here and make some additional points.
There is little reason to think that King was a gay rights supporter while he was alive, at least not in the 1950s. In 1958, he received a letter from a “boy” who was experiencing same-sex attraction and asked for advice. “Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired . . . I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognise the problem and have a desire to solve it.” King’s advice was neither affirming nor helpful, but while this in no way excuses his homophobia, he was writing in a time when homosexuality was illegal in every state, and no public gay rights groups existed in America. As scholar Michael G. Long points out, it may be relevant that King made no attempt to invoke the Bible, use the word “sin,” or urge the gay youth to deal with his feelings by praying or going to church. Thus, in some sense, King was giving what would have been a boilerplate American liberal response to homosexuality in the 1950s.
This segues into another important point. As seems to be generally acknowledged by historians and theologians, King’s religious views were not fundamentalist or evangelical. King was an ordained minister brought up in a fundamentalist home and frequently invoked religion, but his theology was liberal. As a theology student, he wrote that, “Others doctrines such as a supernatural plan of salvation, the Trinity, the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and the second coming of Christ are all quite prominent in fundamentalist thinking. Such are the views of the fundamentalist and they reveal that he is opposed to theological adaptation to social and cultural change. He sees a progressive scientific age as a retrogressive spiritual age. Amid change all around he is willing to preserve certain ancient ideas even though they are contrary to science.” While King at times hedged as to whether he believed in a literal eternal Hell, he once said, ““In reality I know nothing about heaven … personally I don’t believe in hell in the conventional sense.” He also believed that, “If Christ by his life and death paid the full penalty of sin, there is no valid ground for repentance or moral obedience as a condition of forgiveness. The debt is paid; the penalty exacted, and there is, consequently, nothing to forgive.” The simple fact is that if he were alive today, King would probably be rejected as even a Sunday School teacher for most evangelical and fundamentalist churches. And while few theologically liberal Christians defended homosexuality or gay rights in the 1950s, many would later become strong supporters, in contrast to most evangelicals and fundamentalists. Thus, it is reasonable to suspect that King would have likely made the same intellectually journey on gay rights, including marriage equality, as many other liberal Protestants–some of whom, like William Sloane Coffin, were involved directly in the Civil Rights Movement. After all, the religious opposition to gay rights in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries has come primarily from theological conservatives.
We must also recall that King favored separation of Church and State. In response to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling on teacher-led prayer in public schools, he opined, “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 [Alabama Governor] Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.” And he had little sympathy for religious arguments against birth control. In a speech that Coretta delivered on his behalf to Planned Parenthood, he argued 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.”
Finally, MLK’s views on interracial marriage suggest that he would eventually have extended the same line of reasoning to gay marriage. “Marriage,” according to King, “is at bottom a mutual agreement between two individuals. One always has the freedom to say yes or no to the agreement. Individuals marry, not races.” Additionally, “When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom,” because, “It hasn’t given me the possibility of alternatives.” This line of argument from King has been cited by his old ally and longtime LGBT rights advocate, the inestimable Congressman John Lewis, on multiple occasions. Obviously, not everyone who supports interracial marriage supports gay marriage. Nor does everyone who supports gay marriage support interracial marriage. But there is strong correlation between support for both policies. The aforementioned William Sloane Coffin officiated the first interracial marriage in Virginia legally performed post-Loving and later became an early advocate of gay marriage. The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association endorsed interracial marriage in the 1960s and gay marriage in succeeding decades. Fundamentalist people and groups such as Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones University, W.A. Criswell, and John R. Rice have also opposed both interracial marriage and homosexuality and/or gay marriage. The Northeast has been the quickest region to legalize both interracial marriage and gay marriage and the South the most resistant. Indeed, religious disagreements over both interracial and gay marriage tend to break down on similar lines: Southern and theologically conservative religious people and institutions are more likely to be opposed, Northern and theologically liberal religious people and institutions are more likely to be supportive. According to Ebony magazine in 1965, “practically all major religious denominations in the U.S. outside the Southern Bible Belt have gone on record as being in opposition to restrictive marriage laws based on race.” [emphasis mine] Anti-gay individuals, including those from MLK’s own family, should think twice about invoking him to oppose LGBT rights.