Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. To reflect upon Dr. King’s life, legacy and influence, NOTCHES offers some primary sources with which to begin thinking about King’s place in the history of sexuality. Even as historians are increasingly reckoning with King’s complicated private life, King’s views on sexuality are a matter of public record. From 1957-1958, Martin Luther King Jr. had a monthly advice column in Ebony, a magazine directed toward an African American readership. This column, “Advice for Living,” addressed a range of issues including marriage, family life, sexuality, and relationships. So too did his sermons, public lectures and letters, which together reveal King as deeply engaged with the sexual values of his time. As he spelled out in “Secrets of Married Happiness” (1961), King believed that marriage was based on harmonizing gender differences as well as a “holy covenant between two souls pledged to revere one another, to face life’s tasks together, to face life’s sorrow and struggle together, to build a home and to shield, and love the offspring of their union.” Much of his advice below stems from these ideas.
Interracial Marriage and Relationships
Sexuality was closely linked to production and reproduction of racial difference and hierarchies making it a fraught topic for civil rights advocates to address. Opponents of the Civil Rights movement claimed that integration and racial equality would lead to “miscegenation” (especially between black men and white women), mixed-race marriage and interracial children. Until the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws banning interracial marriage, sixteen states still maintained laws banning these unions. As the documents below reveal, King responded to numerous inquiries about his views on interracial marriage.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, February 1958. In this column, King responded to a young white man who professed his love for an African American woman and wanted to know if the Bible forbid interracial unions. “Marriage,” King responded, “is at bottom a mutual agreement between two individuals. One always has the freedom to say yes or no to the agreement. Individuals marry, not races.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, March 1958. The following month, King addressed an African American man in “love with a white woman who lives in a southern state” who asked why marrying this woman was against the law. “I think our love for each other is right and true. If it is, why does the law say otherwise?” wrote the correspondent.
David to Martin Luther King, Jr., August 1967. In this letter to King, a segregationist named David warned that civil rights and integration would lead to mixed-race unions and children. “Most white people,” David wrote, “don’t want to date, dance, have sex and marriage with negroes.”
During the Cold War and at the height of the Civil Rights movement, many officials in the U.S. government believed that homosexuals were national security threats and subversives. The federal government (as well as some state and municipal governments) engaged in a massive witch hunt to exclude them from government jobs. This lavender scare corresponded with widespread condemnation of same-sex sexuality, which was viewed as a disease, a sin and a social danger.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, January 1958. In this column, King replied to a young man who wrote with the following question:”My problem is different from the ones most people have. I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don’t want my parents to know about me. What can I do? Is there any place where I can go for help?” King’s response framed homosexuality as a “habit” that could be fixed by a psychiatrist.
Bayard Rustin, “Martin Luther King’s Views on Gay People,” Advocate, March 1987. Bayard Rustin, an African American gay man, civil rights pioneer, and one of King’s key advisors, discussed the circumstances that led King to push him out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King, Rustin argued, was not personally intolerant of homosexuality. However, in the context of the lavender-baiting during the Cold War and widespread opposition to the Civil Rights movement, Rustin’s sexuality was a liability for the Civil Rights movement.
Divorce and Remarriage
In the 1950s, marriage rates were rising while divorce rates were declining. These trends were not an index of happy or successful marriages. Rather, they reflected a widespread cultural consensus that the locus of sexual expression was marriage and that couples had to make marriages work. Women shouldered the bulk of this emotional and domestic labor. This period also saw the increasing prominence of marriage experts, who as historian Kristen Celello points out, were in the business of preventing divorce. King was no exception as his columns and sermons demonstrate.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, July 1958. “My husband is an alcoholic,” began the letter to Dr. King. “He recently started making physical attacks on me. I hate to break up our home, but I can’t stand this brutality. Can I do anything to help him?” In response, King counseled the woman to “stay with the situation a little longer” and perhaps contribute to her husband’s cure. As historian Rebecca Davis notes, mental health professionals in the 1950s made wives responsible for the emotional work of tending to an alcoholic spouse while minimizing the dangers of spousal abuse.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, August 1958. “Do you spend too much time with the children and the house and not pay attention to him? Are you careful with your grooming? Do you nag? Do you make him feel important. . . like somebody?” King directed these questions at a woman asking for advice on how to address her husband’s infidelity. Dissuading her from divorce, King who himself had extramarital affairs, instead encouraged her to reflect upon how she might be responsible for her husband’s unfaithfulness.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, January 1958. “The Christian Church must continue to take a strong stand on the problem of divorce which is plaguing the American family, while at the same time continuing to give guidance to those individuals who, for various reasons, find it almost impossible to live together.” In this column, King counseled a divorced woman seeking to marry her long-term boyfriend. He advised, “I would not consider it an immoral act for you and your boyfriend to marry if you are in love. I would strongly advise you to profit by the experiences and mistakes of your former marriage.”
What sources would you use to place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. within the history of sexuality? What other contexts are important for understanding his sexual values and beliefs?
Gillian Frank is currently a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion and a lecturer in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. Frank’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990. Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1.
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