A Daughter Sullies Her Father's Legacy

The sight of the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing at the gravesite of her father with thousands of demonstrators to denounce gay marriage was painful and insulting. The Rev. Bernice King and the march organizers deliberately chose King's gravesite to imply that King might well have stood with her and them in their protest. Given her father's relentless, and uncompromising battle against discrimination during his life, it defies belief that he would back an anti-gay campaign.

But it's not the first time that a King family member has sullied King's name and legacy to torpedo gay rights. In 1998, King's niece, Alveda King, barnstormed the country speaking at rallies against gay rights legislation. In case anyone missed the King family connection, her group was named, "King for America." Gay rights groups everywhere countered King's repent-and-save-yourself message to gays by quoting a public statement Coretta Scott King issued in 1996 in which she noted that King would be a champion of gay rights if he were alive.

In this case, King's daughter was careful not to mention gay marriage in her talk. Her mentor and March organizer, Bishop Eddie Long, cautiously downplayed the issue. But Bernice King is an outspoken evangelical, and in the last couple of years she and other black evangelicals have marched, protested, wrote letters and petitions denouncing gay marriage. Polls show that their hostility to gay marriage is much stronger than that of white evangelicals. Long prominently touts Bush's federal amendment banning gay marriage on his church Web site.

In King's day, though, gay rights was invisible on America's public policy radarscope, and homosexuality, among blacks, and whites, was hushed up. There's not a word in any of his speeches or writings about homosexuality or whether he believed the civil rights struggle was inclusive of gays.

There's a way, however, to gauge what King's feelings were on the issue, and what he might say and do about it today. That gauge is the long time personal and political relationship that King had with Bayard Rustin. Best known as the driving force behind the historic 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was a close King associate, ally, supporter, and a known homosexual. In 1953, Rustin was convicted of morals charges. In the frozen mood of that day and time that was the parlance for homosexual acts. It carried a quick, and sometimes, stiff jail term. King knew this, the Kennedys, top FBI officials, black elected officials, civil rights leaders, and the tight circle of black ministers around King, knew it as well.

That didn't deter King from embracing Rustin. At the high point of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott that launched King into the national spotlight and over the vehement opposition of black ministers who called homosexuals and Rustin unsavory and evil, King invited Rustin to come to Montgomery as an advisor. A year later, King turned to Rustin and asked him to draft the resolutions and the organizational charter of his fledging Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He demanded that the SCLC board, mostly composed of black ministers, hire Rustin as its coordinator and publicist. King didn't win that one. The board flatly turned him down, and though it was unstated, Rustin's homosexuality was a major reason.

The issue continued to dog King and his relationship with Rustin. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell publicly threatened to accuse King of having a homosexual affair with Rustin if he didn't call off planned demonstrations at the 1960 Democratic Convention. King didn't buckle to Powell's blackmail threat and went ahead with the demonstrations anyway.

During the next few years, the assault on Rustin's homosexuality, and the pressure on King to dump him, escalated. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, busy with his blatantly illegal spy campaign against King publicly, released wiretaps of scurrilous remarks King associates made about Rustin's homosexuality. On the eve of the March on Washington in 1963, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond denounced Rustin on the Senate floor as a sexual pervert, and inserted a copy of his 1953 arrest booking slip in the Congressional Record. The Kennedys also flatly demanded that King get rid of him. King did not publicly break with Rustin. And when he did eventually distance himself politically from Rustin, he gave no public hint that his homosexuality was an issue.

King risked much to work with and defend Rustin during the tumultuous battles of the civil rights era. He valued him as an ally and a major player in the struggle. He also believed that deeply embodied in the civil rights fight was a person's right to be whom and what he was. While King may have praised his daughter for having the courage and conviction to march for her beliefs, bigotry is still bigotry, whether it's racial or sexual preference. He would not have marched by her side.

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