Sometime around May of 1960, when written letters were still a thing, the emerging social critic James Baldwin contacted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pitch a magazine article.
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“I certainly do not expect you to remember it, but we met over two years ago, in Atlanta,” said Baldwin, then in his mid-30s, who at the time had two novels, a play and a collection of essays to his name. “I am writing you now because Harper’s Magazine has asked me to do a profile of you, and I am coming to Atlanta — I do not know whether you are there or not, but one must start somewhere.”
The resulting essay was more than just prophetic. Published in Harper’s in 1961, seven years before King’s assassination, “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” was also the start of a quiet but powerful friendship between Baldwin — who was openly gay — and the civil rights leader, whose seemingly ambiguous views on gay rights were overshadowed by his pursuit of racial justice and economic equality for black Americans.
Raised in New York, Baldwin came to understand the American South through King, an understanding that would inform Baldwin’s 1963 best-seller “The Fire Next Time.” And King was equally appreciative of his new friend’s essays on race. “Your analysis of the problem is always creative and penetrating,” said King, in a September 1961 letter following the publication of Baldwin’s latest collection. “Your honesty and courage in telling the truth to white Americans, even if it hurts, is most impressive.”
Unlike other members of his family, King never publicly embraced homosexuality, but he never publicly condemned it, either. Bayard Rustin, an openly gay civil rights organizer, became one of King’s closest advisers. For a time, Rustin ran the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which grew out of the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott and other historic demonstrations that King remains known for. In 1987, a year before he died, Rustin said the two never spoke about his sexuality: “He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me.”
Then there was Coretta Scott King, the outspoken leader who some say turned MLK political. She saw equality in terms of race, and beyond it. When they married in 1953, Coretta insisted that the word “obey” was dropped from her wedding vows. She campaigned tirelessly for gay rights at a thankless time for it, when even the many civil rights leaders around her — including her husband — avoided the subject, while others denounced it outright. In the 1980s and ’90s, she used the King Center to highlight how AIDS had ravaged the gay community and black community alike.
Not all members of her family were on board. The couple’s youngest child, the Rev. Bernice King, who was 5 years old when her father died, led a march against same-sex unions in 2004. She seemed to change course, however, after the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 2015, which recognizes same-sex marriage rights. Bernice then issued a statement encouraging “the global community to respect and embrace all LGBT … citizens with dignity and love.”
In “The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” (Basic Books, 2018), author Jason Sokol chronicles how President Lyndon Johnson skipped King’s funeral in 1968 but took to the airwaves to discourage rioting.
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Baldwin, however, managed to squeeze his way in. Among the many in attendance at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta were celebrities of the era such as Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Despite his grief, Baldwin did not cry, not until the funeral procession followed King’s casket outdoors, where a mule-drawn wagon stood ready to carry the slain civil rights leader’s body for roughly four miles, past some 50,000 to 100,000 mourners, to his final resting place.
“I did not want to weep for Martin, tears seemed futile,” Baldwin later wrote. “I may also have been afraid, and I could not have been the only one, that if I began to weep I would not be able to stop.”