Dr. Martin Luther King and “Gay Rights” – A Prelude



Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell


There is a great debate over what the late Dr. Martin Luther King might have had to say about the "gay rights" debate in the USA, and elsewhere in the world.  The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a retired UMC minister, knew Dr. King and this is the first of several "letters" in which he addresses the question.  Rev. Caldwell is a champion of equality in his Church, and beyond.

I am a 71 year old retired African American United Methodist Minister.  Martin Luther King and I both graduated from Boston University School of Theology.  He received his Doctor of Philosophy and I, my Master of Divinity.  He and I met for the first time in the spring of 1958 at the School.  He was in Boston to speak at the Ford Hall Forum, a well-known and popular lecture series.  I thought it would be appropriate to ask him to return to his Boston Alma Mater to speak to some of the classes.  Much to my surprise I was able to contact him in his hotel room via telephone and extend the invitation.  He accepted!

After that meeting I was with him on the Selma (Alabama) to Montgomery March, the March on Washington and a March on Boston protesting school segregation.  It was my honor to serve as Master of Ceremonies as he spoke in a rally amidst the rain on Boston Common. The most prized pictures in my possession are of that day.

Martin King, as we say of some persons, “marched to the beat of a different drummer.”  His decision to serve as minister of an African American church rather than become professor at some College or University, was significant.  He was a “son of the middle class”, yet was able to transcend the class barriers of the USA (barriers we claim not to exist), as he identified with the struggles of poor people.  He was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. at a time when he was supporting, through protests, the quest for decent salaries by garbage workers.

During those first months of 1968, he also was organizing a “Poor People's Campaign” that would end with a protest in Washington, DC confronting our government.  Some have suggested that his assassination on April 4, 1968 was not unrelated to his developing challenge of our economic system that in our nation with such great financial affluence has so much poverty, invisible to most Americans as it might be.  He of course, on April 4, 1967 (an exact year before he was murdered) delivered his powerful message, “Beyond Vietnam”.

If Dr. King were alive today, I am certain he would challenge our nation's involvement in Iraq.

I write all of the above as a prelude to sharing my thoughts on what Martin Luther King might say about Gay Rights as my way of indicating that he dared to say and do those things that countered prevailing sentiment in both the church and society.

We of African descent in America rejoice that our slave ancestors were able to respond to the Bible as a book of liberation rather than subjugation.  Slave masters attempted to control the mind and actions of slaves by drilling into them the words in the New Testament, “slaves be obedient to your masters”.

But they embraced other portions of Scripture that countered these words of oppression. I suggest that African slaves in the Americas “adapted” Scripture to fit their reality rather than “adopted” it as it was forced upon them as a methodology of control.  Careful study of the "Negro Spirituals" indicate that my ancestors in their interaction with Holy Writ, as it was read, taught and preached, found in it meaning for their circumstance.

Here in the USA, I have urged my Gay sisters and brothers and those of us who are allies and advocates of the Gay rights justice struggle, to “claim” a Bible of liberation rather than oppression.

My spouse Grace is calling me to breakfast.  When one has been married for 47 years as have we, I have found it wise to respond to her call!

Obviously I have not gotten to answering the question that I have posed. I look forward to begin to do this in my next letter.  May this letter serve as the “first” of others to follow.  Hopefully this may encourage readers to look for its sequel.

© 2004, Rev. Gilbert Caldwell.  Used with permission of the author.

From our archives:
Archbishop Tutu Gives Hope for Gays and Lesbians (February 2004)

27 December  2004