Saturday, April 20, 2024


What would Martin Luther King do?
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This portrait of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was presented to President Bush in 2002. (Photo by TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Monday is the official recognition of the birth and life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It's a day when many Americans reflect on King's work for justice and equality. For some it's an opportunity to speculate about what King would say and do about today's issues had he not been assassinated in 1968. Few doubt that King would still be fighting against racism, poverty and war. But it's less clear where King would stand on other hot-button issues like gay rights -- especially the right to marry.

St. Paul, Minn. — Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest daughter participated in a march in Atlanta in December 2004, in support of a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The Rev. Bernice King has said she doesn't believe her father died to give homosexuals the right to marry.

She is not the only black religious leader who believes this.

"Most people want to say he was a great civil rights worker, but he was a great preacher," says the Rev. Bob Battle. "A preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

On the Thursday before the King holiday, Battle gave a short speech in the state Capitol rotunda. The event, meant to honor King and Minnesota civil rights icons, was sponsored by conservative Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater.

Battle is an African American who grew up in segregated Mississippi. He also led a committee that chose the street that runs in front of the Capitol to be renamed after King. Battle is convinced that if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would support a ban on gay marriage.

"Because he was 100 percent family. He knew that family was the thing that makes this country a great country," says Battle. "And then because of slavery, we as black folks were separated so much on purpose to keep us from growing into a family."

Battle also says King's theology would have prevented him from endorsing gay marriage. He says King believed in a Bible that stated God's opposition to homosexuality, and that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. A recent Pew Research poll found that 67 percent of black Protestants oppose gay marriage on religious grounds.

But some strongly disagree with that view of the Bible.

"I get livid when I hear about 'same sex marriage goes against the will of God,'" says Matthea Little Smith. "Well, black folks were chattel too, OK?"

Smith is an African American and a lesbian. She is also the daughter of Minnesota civil rights pioneer Matthew Little. Smith has six children and five grandchildren. She came out 20 years ago, after she and her husband divorced.

Smith supports gay marriage, even though she doesn't want to get married -- again. But she says gay marriage or civil unions are necessary for those same-sex couples who share property and children. Smith believes King would support that.

'Now's the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children.' Now that's what Martin Luther King said. He didn't say 'All of God's children who are not gay.'
- Matthea Little Smith

"Now's the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children," Smith says. "Now that's what Martin Luther King said. He didn't say, 'All of God's children who are not gay.'"

The Rev. Randy Staten believes King would support some gay rights. When he served in the Legislature, Staten was the chief author of the bill that created the King holiday in Minnesota. But Staten doesn't believe King would go as far as to support gay marriage.

"I think in questions in terms of benefits, I think questions in terms of employment, in terms of housing -- that we have absolutely no right to discriminate against anybody as far as sexual orientation is concerned," Staten says.

Of course, no one knows for sure what King's position would be on same-sex marriage. But King's widow Coretta has said publicly that she believes her husband would have supported gay rights.

"Of course, who would know better? She was his wife and also a struggle-mate with Dr. King for many, many years," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Hutchinson is a political analyst, nationally syndicated columnist and author of several books on the African American experience. Hutchinson recently wrote a column that criticized King's daughter's involvement in the movement to ban gay marriage. He says some African Americans, like King's daughter, believe that King wouldn't include gay causes in the civil rights struggle.

"Many African Americans, myself included, take the opposite position. It's absolutely inconceivable that Dr. Martin Luther King would endorse anything that smacks of discrimination and bigotry against any group," says Hutchinson.

King and the civil rights movement's use of non-violent protest and civil disobedience has shaped how people around the world express dissent. But perhaps King's greatest legacy is that he still inspires people. His example gives them the courage to stand up for what they believe in -- no matter what the issue, and the hope to believe that they can overcome great obstacles.