More than three decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights icon who emerged in the 1960s remains a central figure in some of the nation's most controversial issues today -- same-sex marriage, abortion and the war in Iraq.
As the country celebrates King this holiday weekend, those seeking to sway the political opinions of a land divided into red and blue states are using his name and their interpretations of his message to support their own causes. And while nobody will ever know whether he would approve of the issues his name has been attached to, one thing is certain -- Martin Luther King Jr. remains a key figure in the nation's culture wars.
The debate over same-sex marriage echoed from the steps of San Francisco City Hall to the halls of the Massachusetts Supreme Court last year, as 11 states passed bans on same-sex unions and President Bush called for a federal constitutional ban.
Evan Wolfson, a Manhattan lawyer who has pushed for same-sex marriage for more than 20 years and is founder and executive director of the Freedom to Marry Coalition, calls the effort a direct descendant of King and the civil rights movement in his book, "Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People's Right to Marry."
"I take a tremendous amount of inspiration from Dr. King," Wolfson said.
"King himself was a very strong advocate for equality, not just for African Americans but all people."
Wolfson cites King's reliance on Bayard Rustin as a key adviser during the Montgomery bus boycott. Rustin, who was gay, also organized the 1963 March on Washington.
"King's right-hand man was a gay man," Wolfson said. "People like Coretta Scott King and (U.S.) Congressman John Lewis, who marched with him, have said that King would have stood for the rights of homosexuals."
Cecil Williams, pastor of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, said King sought an end to racism, classism, homophobia and all forms of discrimination. He also cited Coretta Scott King's defense of gay and lesbian rights.
"I know her personally, and I know what her position is," said Williams.
"She has spoken out for gay rights and the participation of gay people.
"I go by what Coretta says."
While King's widow has compared homophobia to racism, his youngest daughter, Bernice King, led a church-organized march last month from her father's grave through the streets of Atlanta in support of traditional Christian values -- including opposition to gay marriage.
And King's niece, Alveda King, an ordained minister, has also voiced opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
Alveda King, founder of King for America, a faith-based organization headquartered in Atlanta, said her opinions are based on her own life experiences and on her uncle's teachings.
"My uncle once said the Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the lives of his children for personal comfort or safety," said Alveda King, who has undergone both a voluntary and an involuntary abortion.
"Their lives were terminated without their permission," she said of both procedures. "That is a severe restriction of the individual rights of a human being."
Alveda King believes that her uncle would have opposed same-sex unions because it contradicts the word of the Bible.
Some black ministers and cultural conservatives argue King would not have supported the moral relativism put forth by some advocates for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and even affirmative action.
The national organization Priests for Life, which was founded by Father Lee Kaylor, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, also argues that King would champion the cause of the unborn. King was assassinated before abortion rights were recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The group's national director, Frank Pavone, said King spoke of the sacredness of all human life in a 1967 Christmas Eve sermon. "Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons or a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of God made in his image," King said in the sermon.
"The message that he brought forward and fought for is one of equality, the equality of the human person," Pavone said. "In the case of our movement, the equality is missed because you have one person inside another, the unborn child."
King's name has also found its way into the debate over the war in Iraq.
United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of more than 800 groups throughout the United States that have joined together to oppose the Bush administration's policy, compares the Iraq war to the war in Vietnam, which King called immoral.
"He got flak for that," said coalition spokesman Bill Dobbs. "There's a vastly expanded peace movement in the country in the last two years, and King is very much in step with (what we're advocating)."
Glide's Williams agrees King would speak out against the Iraq war. "He would want to create a march and a dynamic where justice would prevail,"
Williams said. "He would not support the war in Iraq. He would say it's time to withdraw, it's time to change course."
Environmentalists also look to King for inspiration, tracing the modern environmental justice movement back to King's effort to improve working conditions for African American garbage workers. And hip-hop moguls such as Russell Simmons who used their money and prestige to push voter registration drives for the presidential election have said they're following in King's footsteps.
Stanford University's King Papers Project, headed by historian Clayborne Carson, is a major research effort to assemble and disseminate information regarding King and the movement he led. Carson said King's writings and speeches show he was an advocate of inclusion, and would most likely oppose any efforts to restrict the rights of any group of people.
Carson says it's not surprising that King's legacy can be interpreted so differently by so many, because he often spoke in metaphors and of universal values.
"That was his strength as a leader -- he took those particular issues of African Americans and expressed them as universal claims to justice and democracy," Carson said. "He was one of those who took those demands and put them in the context of universal principles."
During the Montgomery bus boycott, while others talked in specifics about what they wanted from the bus companies, King gave a speech filled with references to the U.S. Constitution and themes from the Bible and the Declaration for Independence, Carson said.
"In his view, the struggle was not between black and white; it was between justice and injustice," Carson said.
E-mail Jason B. Johnson at email@example.com
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle