Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dr. King: An LGBT Rights Activist?

The debate over whether late civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., would have advocated on behalf of LGBT rights remains alive among many circles inside and outside the movement for LGBT rights. This writer thinks he would have based on statements made by his widow, the late Coretta Scott King, and others close to him that suggested he would have indeed brought LGBT Americans into his broader message of equality and human dignity. Panelists at a forum sponsored by WNYC and Civic Frame at the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend seemed to agree as they discussed Dr. King's legacy. Hindsight is almost always 20/20 -- as perhaps suggested in my article for EDGE New York on the forum -- but it remains relatively clear he would have become an LGBT rights activist. His faith and tradition of non-violent struggle would have almost certainly have mandated it.

With social commentators, politicians and activists continuing to debate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., nearly 40 years after his death, many maintain the late civil rights icon would have advocated on behalf of LGBT people. Panelists who participated in a forum moderated by WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer and Civic Frame President April Yvonne Garrett at the Brooklyn Museum on Jan. 19 to examine King and his impact seemed to agree.

Corey D. B. Walker, assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University, said he feels King certainly included LGBT people in his broader message of equal rights. Walker further added King’s own faith would have mandated him to do so.

"King felt religion compelled him to act in a certain way because he felt human dignity was being violated," he told EDGE in a pre-forum interview. "What we see with King is... the extension of rights to communities throughout the American nation."

Eric Gregory, assistant professor of religion at Princeton University, agreed.

"King never used his faith to exclude anyone from the American promise," he argued. "King’s love should stand against vicious homophobia, discrimination and hypocrisy in high places and bigotry in all sorts of sacred places."

Gregory further concluded the black church remains a crucial institution to carry out what he categorized as King’s LGBT-inclusive vision. Walker criticized it for the homophobia that remains prevalent in many historically black congregations.

"A lot of work needs to be done in the role of the black church to develop a much more progressive stance with gays and lesbians in society," he said. "It doesn’t portray the essence of Dr. King’s beliefs."

Academics and especially LGBT activists are quick to point out King’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King, and their eldest daughter Yolanda were vocal supporters of LGBT rights. King famously drew parallels between the Civil Rights struggle and the movement for LGBT rights during the opening speech of the National Lesbian & Gay Task Force’s 2000 Creating Change conference in Atlanta. And she also spoke out against the proposed Constitutional amendment to ban marriage for same-sex couples in a 2004 speech she delivered at Richard Stockton University in New Jersey.

Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of King’s 1963 March on Washington, was openly gay. He remained one of King’s leading advisers throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

Anti-LGBT organizations, such as Concerned Women for America, and some within the black church have criticized LGBT activists for using King’s messages and rhetoric to advance marriage for same-sex couples. The movement continues to grapple with the effectiveness of this strategy but Gregory said it does raise some questions.

"How to appropriate King and his legacy is a contentious and controversial plain," he said.

Walker singled out presidential candidates during a discussion focused on how King exerted his influence as a political strategist. He argued they fell prey to using religion to gain votes and political power. And Walker concluded this strategy fails to take King’s legacy into account.

"In many ways, the religion King was talking about is an inconvenient religion," Walker said. "We don’t see that religion in any of the candidates."

Walker further concluded King’s political legacy compels elected officials, candidates and those whom they represent (or want to represent) to expand equality to all Americans.

"King forces us to look at humanity," he said. "King forces us to look at the complete human being."

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