King's impact shapes political debates in
21st century Leader's vision relevant to gay rights, war
Jason B. Johnson
Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, January 17, 2005
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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