Dr. King and the Modern Civil Rights Struggle

Today is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington.  

“I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.' I have a dream…”

A while back, I got into an intense “discussion” with a Fundamentalist Christian (from Canada) who felt that as a Christian, Dr. King would not have support today’s civil rights of gays and lesbians:

“Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality of all people, but he didn't suppress the rights of others to gain his rights. (By the way, she believes that giving equal rights to gay and lesbians will somehow limit her rights. It’s a popular mantra among the right wing.) Gays today shove their rights on others, making people uncomfortable. Dr. King made a way for all white people and all black people to come together in unity. He was non-violent. Today’s gay activists are too confrontational. It’s in-your-face and aggressive…

“Gay activism is not the same as human rights. It’s about forcing people to change the morality of the gay lifestyle. That is not equality. It’s very sad to see Dr. King’s name used when it comes to something that I’m sure he would oppose.”

What’s truly sad to me (and these are MY thoughts) is how much this person missed the point.

First, I have to say: our struggle IS about human rights. It’s not racial, so all comparisons are not valid, but it is about the rights of a minority against the will of the majority. We are not interested in changing a person’s moral code, but we refuse to allow that code to be imposed on all. If a person wants to believe that homosexuality wrong, that’s fine. If they oppose same-sex marriage, that’s okay. At the time of Dr. King, there were people who believed that the civil rights movement was morally wrong. (Some still do!) They thought integration was wrong, and opposed interracial marriage. But it doesn't change the reality that those people’s beliefs should not be imposed…resulting in the oppression and discrimination of others.

I can’t make a definitive statement, but I feel sure that Dr. King did not care what people thought about the morality of the movement; he knew it was right. He and the movement worked to change the laws…regardless of how people felt. He said: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.”

Second, while Dr. King advocated a non-violent approach, that did not mean it was not confrontational. Blacks entered businesses that did not want them there—where signs clearly said they were not welcomed. (I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during this time; I remember those signs.) I feel certain that some whites who were in those places would feel violated and even threatened, though no violence was intended. But Dr. King believed that unjust law must be disobeyed to show they were wrong. He said “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

The truth is, Dr. King was fighting for the right of the black people, which of necessity, meant that white people would be uncomfortable. He wanted unity, but his primary mission was justice. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

That meant laws which discriminated against blacks would need to be changed. His mission also meant that attitudes would need to be confronted. It was not welcomed! It was resisted…strongly. In rallies and in churches, the message and the movement was opposed. The rhetoric was hostile and hateful. Just like it is today.

Third, this conflict is not about some vague “lifestyle,” which suggests choice. (There's really no such thing. It's just a code word used by anti-gay factions to bring fear and lump all gay people together.) This modern civil right push is about the freedom to be who we are and to love who we love. It’s about me as a person being allowed the same rights as straight people.

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Finally, yes, it’s true that some black leaders (primarily black religious leaders) today do not see the gay rights movement as connected to their earlier struggle. I wish I understood that mentality, but I think it relates back to some of the same dogma and prejudices espoused by the conservative Christian community. However, contrary to what this person who confronted me thing…and even beyond what some black leaders assert, I do think Dr. King would be actively involved in today’s gay rights struggle. And his wife agrees. Coretta Scott King said "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere' ... I appeal to everyone who believes in [his] dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people." Mrs. King contends: "Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”

Today, as we celebrate the life, the messages and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, we can also recognize that his work is not finished. His dream has not yet been realized. Were he here with us, I believe he would continue to be a clarion call for equality and justice. For all people!

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