Was Dr. Martin Luther King Homophobic?  Bayard Rustin Says No

Written by PlayBack

By Angela L. Braden

In a 1987 essay, civil rights icon, Bayard Rustin, candidly reveals Dr. Martin Luther King’s views on gay people and their role in the civil rights movement.

According to Rustin, Dr. King never made an issue of Rustin’s homosexuality per say.  However, Rustin did say that Dr. King believed Rustin’s sexuality to be too controversial to be included in the various issues discussed during the civil rights movement.

While Dr. King never disclosed to Rustin his full views on homosexuality, Rustin believed that Dr. King would have never hired an openly gay man to work for him if he had an issue with “same sex gender loving people.”

“It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me. He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life. J. Edgar Hoover was spreading stories, and there were very real efforts to entrap him. I think at a given point he had to reach a decision. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.”

But if Dr. King did not have a problem with Rustin’s sexuality, why did he allow others to drive a wedge between the two men?

It is suspected that Dr. King was worried that people would think the two men’s association with one another wasn’t just because of their common passion to fight for the civil rights of African Americans; but more because the two men were in a romantic relationship.

“Adam Clayton Powell, for some reason I will never understand, actually called Dr. King when he was in Brazil and indicated that he was aware of some relationship between me and Dr. King, which, of course, there was not. This added to his anxiety about additional discussions of sex.”

Because Rustin’s sexuality continued to be highlighted more than his talents, Dr. King and his colleague chose to pass on making Rustin the lead planner for the March on Washington.  However, the men on the executive committee, King included, voted that Rustin serve as the second man in charge for the historical March.  In fact, the vote was unanimous.

Mr. Randolph [who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute] took the view that it was important for him to have me. Mr. Randolph was finally made director of the march. “But I want to warn you before you vote that if I’m made leader, I’m going to be given the privilege of determining my staff,” he said. “I also want you to know I’ll make Bayard Rustin my deputy.” He turned to Martin and said: “Dr. King, how do you vote?” And Dr. King said: “I vote yes.” He turned to Jim Farmer. Jim Farmer said: “I vote yes.” Then he turned to Roy Wilkins. Roy said: “Phil, you’ve got me over a barrel, I’ll go along with you.” So, it was never a prejudicial situation; it was that given the attitude at that time, people felt this was a problem. I think there were others who felt: How many problems can a guy have and expect us to elevate him to the directorship of this march?

To learn more about Bayard Rustin’s plight as a gay black man during the 60’s, read Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Don Weise.

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