Written by Logo
With racial injustice and LGBT rights making headlines daily, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has taken on a special significance in recent years.
What are the links between these two communities? What are the lessons of the civil-rights movement that LGBT people can share with the world?
Below, we examine five ways the legacy of Martin Luther King as it applies to the LGBT community.
“By The Content Of Their Character”
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom espoused the idea that all Americans were equal, and were to be judged on their actions, not on immutable factors like race.
The LGBT community has expanded that belief to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The architect of the March on Washington, Rustin also pioneered the earliest Freedom Rides, refused to give up his seat on a segregated bus more than a decade before Rosa Parks, and was the first supporter of a young Martin Luther King Jr.
But as an out gay man, Rustin was often sidelined by the very movement he helped found: After a 1953 arrest for solicitation, Bayard wrote “sex must be sublimated if I am to live in this world longer.”
In 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond read his entire arrest report into the congressional record, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the March on Washington.
In his later years, Rustin directed his energy into the nascent gay-rights movement, declaring, “the new n***ers are gays.”
A year before he died, Rustin gave a speech at the University of Pennsylvania where he declared “we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States. Unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”
In 2013, President Obama awarded Bayard Rustin a posthumous Medal Of Freedom.
In 2015, Logo honored his legacy by announcing the Bayard Rustin Trailblazer Award, honoring unsung heroes of LGBT equality.
Coretta Scott King
While MLK was assassinated before Stonewall, his widow, Coretta Scott King, was a staunch ally to the LGBT community—nd believed her husband would have been, too.
Before her death, Mrs. King spoke eloquently about the links between racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, insisting they all “seek to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”
Speaking of her husband’s legacy at a gathering in 1998, Mrs. King said, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ’Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ ”
Loving v. Virginia
A nation divided by the definition of marriage: It’s an issue the LGBT community still grapples with six months after Obergefell v. Hodges, but in 1967, at the height of the movement MLK helped start, it was Richard and Mildred Loving who ran afoul of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Earl Warren declared marriage was a basic civil right “fundamental to our very existence and survival.”
“To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
Years later, Mildred Loving spoke in support of same-sex marriage:
“Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights,” she declared. “I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
Throughout the legal struggle for federal marriage equality, Loving v. Virginia was cited as a precedent in lifting bans.
Separate But (Not) Equal In the 1960s it was separate water fountains. Today it’s separate bathrooms and bakeries.
The work of the African-American civil rights movement created a cultural understanding that we as Americans cannot pick and choose who we wish to deal with in the public sphere.
President Obama has spoken often about the debt he and the entire nation owe to MLK.
“In a world full of poverty, he called for empathy; in the face of brutality, he placed his faith in non-violence,” he said in 2015.
“His teachings remind us we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are wealthy; to care about the child in the decrepit school long after our own children have found success; and to show compassion toward the immigrant family, knowing that we were strangers once, too.”
It no doubt informed the President’s evolution on LGBT rights, from a tentative supporter to a staunch ally.
In a 2012 Newsweek cover story, Andrew Sullivan declared Obama was America’s first “gay president”:
“I have always sensed that he intuitively understands gays and our predicament—because it so mirrors his own,” wrote Sullivan.
“And he knows how the love and sacrifice of marriage can heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul. The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”