Unfortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we honor today, was assassinated before the gay rights movement became a force on the American stage, so we’ll never know for sure what he may have done to further the cause of gay and lesbian rights had he lived. The person who knew him best, his wife, Coretta Scott King, was certain, however, that King’s legacy was equality for all. To that end, she dedicated much of her time to LGBT equality issues before her death in 2006.
â€œLike Martin, I donâ€™t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others”, she would tell black civil rights leaders angered by gays and lesbians comparing their struggle to their own. She would quote her husband and say, â€œI have worked too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible.”
She also fought off bigots who would co-opt MLK’s message and try to make it their own. In 2002, anti-gay advocates sought to repeal Miami-Dade Countyâ€™s equal rights law by sending out fliers saying that King would be outraged at its gay-inclusive nature. Coretta responded through a statement put out by the King Center for Nonviolent Change saying, “I appeal to everybody who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.â€™s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbians and gay people.” When George W. Bush came out on the White House lawn and, in a bid for reelection, told the press he supported a Constitutional ban on gay marriage, Coretta again spoke up and reminded America of King’s legacy:
“Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”
She had many close gay friends, including one Winston Johnson, of Atlanta:
“Johnson, who is gay, met Mrs. King right after the assassination of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They became close friends and he eventually helped her begin her vocal gay advocacy after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in in 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick â€” a case that arose from Atlanta â€” that it was within a stateâ€™s right to arrest gay people who violated the stateâ€™s sodomy law.”
Her personal assistant, Lynn Cothren, a white, openly gay man, worked closely with her for 23 years. Last March, journalist Herndon Davis sat down with Cothren to discuss what it was like to work so closely with her and how initially, she was disappointed that, despite his name, he was not a black woman:
(The video is a little screwy and you have to move the time line a little before it’ll play, but it’s a fascinating discussion.)
It has been a long, strange few months for the gay community, and if you’re like us, you have mixed feelings about the future. Our passions riled by the ever more obvious injustices done against gays and lesbians in the name of God or tradition, we look for leadership, hope and direction, waiting for a King or a Milk to come and lead us the way to a more fair and just America. We may not get that leader, but as we remember Dr. King today, we should remember that the struggle for gay and lesbian rights is the continuation of his work, not some separate thing. We say this a lot here on Queerty, but the struggle for gay and lesbian equality is the defining civil rights cause of our time. Coretta Scott King’s legacy was to make that indisputable fact known far and wide.
Do you think the gay rights struggle is a continuation of the black civil rights struggle? Is it “the defining civil rights cause of our generation?”