On this Martin Luther King Day, which observes the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are embroiled in a difficult period in American life.
While being two very distinct eras, the climate of the moment we’re in is not too far from the environment Dr. King came to prominence in. Racial and societal divisions, widespread fear, and the continual threat of the end times remain, but in much different forms. The civil rights of all people remain at large.
LGBTQ equality has certainly progressed since the 1950s and 60s to today, but the rights of people of all genders and sexualities remain at risk just as much, especially throughout parts of America.
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Even as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and world-admired leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not ever openly address gay, transgender, or LGBTQ rights, because it wasn’t a mainstream issue at the time.
It is now. Thus, it was left to the peers and family of Dr. King after his life was cut short at only 39-years-old to speak for him and his legacy on LGBTQ equality. From there, years of mixed responses and a lack of agreement on what Dr. King did, or would have, believed, remains unclear.
The question of what Dr. King’s beliefs regarding LGBTQ rights were, or would be, remains complicated. Yours, however, do not have to be.
You shouldn’t wait for someone else to believe in something so you can follow — breaking the mould to make change is more than enough of a reason for you to stand up for it yourself. Somebody will always have to stand up for something or someone, with or without anyone’s support. Dr. King was a young leader that had to do so, and his legacy in that regard is unquestionable.
The best way to honor Dr. King is to take initiative because, as he implored, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” That’s why many people who knew him (like his widow and leader in her own right, Coretta Scott King) and have followed in his footsteps (such as Rev. Raphael Warnock, a U.S. Senator-elect who is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s former church) have taken up the fight for LGBTQ equality without hesitance.
As we try to make due in this difficult period in America, we need to remember that Dr. King made clear that “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” as he wrote in his condemnation of the “white moderate” in Letters from Birmingham Jail, published in 1963 but more relevant than ever before. If you can’t stand for your beliefs, then you are simply hindering them. Now calls for a time where action, and convictions for action, is required.
In that vein, we have found LGBTQ-focused or LGBTQ-related organizations that are carrying on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and that you can support.
A. Philip Randolph Institute
The A. Philip Randolph Institute is an advocacy organization fighting for civil rights and labor rights. It is a LGBTQ-related group from its out co-founder, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a longtime advisor to Dr. King and introduced him to Gandhi’s principles on non-violence, in addition to assisting in organizing the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King would deliver his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
The Institute was co-founded by Rustin and its namesake, A. Philip Randolph, in 1965 to combine the fight for racial equality and labor equity as they progressed through America. Rustin also served as the Institute’s first President until 1979. That position currently belongs to Clayola Brown, who served on the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)’s Business Response to AIDS board. The Institute bought a legal challenge of a voter caging law all the way to the Supreme Court in 2018, but the conservative-leaning bench did not rule in their favor.
Presently, the Institute is a senior constituency group of the AFL-CIO, one of seven that form the union federation’s non-profit efforts. Pride at Work, connecting LGBTQ rights and labor issues, is another. This is a full-circle connection for the AFL-CIO, as Dr. King delivered the speech “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins” in 1961 to dispel the federation’s racial disparities at the time, when Randolph was a vice president of the organization.
Out & Equal Workplace Advocates
In a separate speech to the AFL-CIO in 1965, Dr. King said “the labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” Other than racial equality, Dr. King worked on labor rights possibly more than any other form of civil rights, and he was supporting a union of sanitation workers going on strike when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
Out & Equal exclusively advocates for workplace equality for the LGBTQ community. Yolanda King, Dr. King’s eldest daughter and active LGBTQ advocate prior to her passing in 2007, worked with the non-profit.
“There has been some progress, thanks to the work of this organization in the workplace…[but] you still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this it totally unacceptable,” Yolanda King said at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in 2006.
Fellowship of Reconciliation
The United States Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR USA) is an interfaith activist group, primarily advocating for pacifism and non-violence — a major tenet of Dr. King’s activism, as he learned from Bayard Rustin. They consider themselves to be the “largest, oldest interfaith peace and justice organization in the United States,” being founded in 1915.
Rustin, among others, was inspired by the principles of FOR USA to form the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), of which Rustin is known as the “uncle.” CORE and FOR USA joined forces in the 1940s to create the Journey of Reconciliation, where Rustin and others tried to directly challenge and end segregated transportation laws throughout the southeast, years before the Freedom Rides.
FOR USA provided material support to the Montgomery Bus Boycott as organized by Dr. King in 1955 and 1956, and helped immortalize its place in history after by producing and distributing the comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.
Today they are still committed to activism through peaceful means to bring about political or social change. One of its key priorities is LGBTQ rights and justice, because “throughout our history, and up to the present, LGBTQ [people] have been represented in all branches of the organization.” FOR USA notes that an out lesbian became co-executive director of the organization in 1922, possibly referring to Grace Hutchins.
The state of Georgia was as important to Dr. King’s success, as Georgia was in recently securing the Presidential election and the Senate for the Democratic Party. In his final oral speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Dr. King mentioned his hometown of Atlanta — a city now known as a “Black gay mecca” and the LGBTQ capital of the South — multiple times.
“The masses of people are rising up,” Dr. King said on during that fateful address delivered just hours before his life would end, “and wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.'”
The state may have Democratic U.S. Senators, but that does not guarantee that LGBTQ people in Georgia are safe from inequality from the conservative majority in the state executive and legislative government. Local groups, such as Georgia Equality, are essential to the fight for LGBTQ equality in the Peach State and beyond.
Now over 25-years-old, Georgia Equality is made of two organizations: one for helping to pass pro-equality legislation and electing pro-equality officials, and the other for educational activities and voting mobilization. In the last seven years, they have ensured that no anti-LGBTQ legislation passed in Georgia, and are dedicated to continuing that.
Dedicated so much that they called out Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest daughter, for participating in an anti-gay marriage march in 2004. They have since taken participated in “The Dream Lives” Unity Processional in Dr. King’s honor in Columbus, Georgia.
Southern Poverty Law Center
While the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) might be most recognized in the LGBTQ community as the advocates that identify and research hate groups, the Center has a rich, long history of standing up against right-wing extremism and white supremacy through legal and educational means.
After their creation in 1971, they took on the Ku Klux Klan and created the Civil Rights Memorial. Today, they focus on “working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people.” That includes working to unveil and dispel far-right or discriminatory movements through “Hatewatch,” which includes naming and documenting anti-LGBTQ hate groups. Especially following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, their work on behalf of all Americans is more vital than ever.
They, like Dr. King, still retain their southern roots and are also dedicated to defending those in poverty or the general public, just as much as private entities or the wealthy are. LGBTQ rights are a core issue for the SPLC.
Human Rights Campaign
In another part of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King said: “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”
Ultimately, the fight for LGBTQ rights continues on in different parts of America. The United States Senate has yet to pass the Equality Act, and until that becomes law, then this country has not lived up to being the ‘land of the free’ its founders pledged it would be for “everyone,” although their definition of “everyone” was different then.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), among others, is one of the most ardent advocators for the passage of the Equality Act. They believe that passing it “would provide consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life.” It passed the House in 2019, but it will need to be re-introduced in the new session of Congress for consideration again, before moving to the Senate.
While all of Dr. King’s children followed in his footsteps when it came to activism in some way, Yolanda was the most active, and she focused on speaking up on the behalf of LGBTQ people before many other Christian or faith leaders were willing to so. King was once presented with the Visionary Award at the Equality Awards, presented by California Equality.
She would work with HRC from the 1980s and, at their 2000 gala, declare that “we are all participants of creation of the present, whether we like it or not.” (Her full remarks are below.) We can participate in the creation of a better present by supporting those pushing for true equality from America, at least to start.