ATLANTA — Bernice King took the stage today at Atlanta’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. rally and included gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people among the various groups she said need to come together to fulfill her father’s legacy.
In a passionate, sermon-like speech about building unity, King said she didn’t care if people were Hindu, Buddhist, Islamist, were from the North side or the South side, were black or white, were “heterosexual or homosexual, or gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender” — that all people were needed to create unity.
LGBT people who attended the rally said they were shocked that King – who has a long anti-gay past — actually acknowledged the community in a public speech, but said they were also glad because it shows people can evolve.
Rev. Maressa Pendermon, a minister with LGBT-inclusive Unity Fellowship Church, said she at first intended to tune out King because of her anti-gay past, but decided to pay attention one more time.
For her father’s vision to be realized we’ve got to come together across boundaries and then she got in preacher mode. Then she said ‘heterosexual or homosexual,’ and then backed up and said ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.’ We need all of us,” Pendermon said.
There’s always room for growth,” Pendermon said, describing her reaction to King’s words. “People grow and people change. Sometimes we don’t let them. I wasn’t expecting that. And I was already ready to shut down but I challenged myself to listen and I’m glad I listened.”
Pendermon and her church were part of a counter protest in 2004 at the same intersection where today’s rally took place. In 2004, King was an elder at Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and the two led a march of thousands through the streets of Atlanta to protest, among other issues, gay marriage. She has also said that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”
Craig Washington, a founder of the Bayard Rustin/Audre Lorde breakfast where LGBT activists and allies gather before participating in the MLK march, said he was “surprised and actually excited” by King’s words.
It reminded me that people can and do shift attitudes. They do evolve,” he said. “What Bernice’s turnabout …spoke to is potential to change. We still have to remember they too are human.
I was like, ‘What?’ I clutched pearls. I sure did. I was not prepared to applaud Bernice King today and she gave me something to applaud,” Washington said.
Paulina Helm-Hernandez, the LGBT honorary grand marshal for today’s march and rally, said she also was surprised to hear King’s inclusive words.
“I thought it was great. First time I’ve ever heard her say lesbian, gay, bi and trans out loud,” she said. “She said homosexual at first and then corrected herself. It takes a lot of grace to do something like that when you’re on a roll.”
Whether King was sincere and genuine with her words remains to be seen, Helm-Hernandez said.
“I feel like in coming years that will be telling what she said was genuine. I hope so,” she said.
King was recently named CEO of the King Center after she left New Birth following Eddie Long’s sex scandal in which he was sued by young men who accused him of coercing them into sexual relationships.