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Anti-Gay Drive Wrong To Use MLK

Let me tell you a little bit about Bayard Rustin.

He was a founding father of the civil rights movement who died in 1987. He provided invaluable tactical assistance to Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott and was an architect of the 1963 March on Washington. He was a black man. And he was openly gay.

This impromptu history lesson seems necessary in the wake of a report written by my colleague, Herald reporter Karl Ross, and published Friday. The story deals with a flier issued by a coalition of groups that is attempting to roll back a 1998 amendment to Miami-Dade County's human rights ordinance. That amendment extends protection against discrimination to gays and lesbians.

The flier opposing it was distributed in black churches, targeting a segment of the electorate that will be crucial in a September referendum to determine the amendment's fate. It reads in part: ''Martin Luther King Jr. would be OUTRAGED! If he knew homosexualist extremists were abusing the civil rights movement to get special rights based on their sexual behavior.''

The flier invokes a Rev. ''Fred Shuttleworth,'' Birmingham, Ala., civil rights activist, as saying, ''Dr. King and I were not crusading for homosexuality. I've heard Dr. King speak out against homosexuality on many occasions. It is wrong to equate homosexuality with civil rights.''

Friends, what is ''wrong'' is the people who published this broadside. Indeed, they're wrong on so many counts that I'm afraid I'll run out of space before I get a chance to list them all.

To begin with, they got the man's name wrong. It is Shuttlesworth, with a second ''s'' in the middle. They've also got his views wrong. He has said through a spokesman for the King Center in Atlanta that he doesn't recall uttering those words, and if he ever said anything similar, it's being misrepresented.

The flier also has King's views wrong. His biographers report that when other members of the civil rights brain trust urged him to dissociate himself from Rustin because of the latter's homosexuality, King refused. Additionally, his widow, Coretta, said through a spokesman that while her husband never publicly addressed the issue of homosexuality, they did discuss it privately, and he told her he was concerned about the discrimination suffered by gay men and lesbians.

To which Eladio Jos´ Armesto, communications director for Take Back Miami-Dade, one of the groups opposing the ordinance, replies as follows: ''Coretta Scott King is entitled to her opinion. She can't speak for her husband, though.''

So let me see if I've got this straight. She can't speak for a man to whom she was married for almost 15 years. But a South Florida extremist group can?!

That would be funny if it weren't so. . . . No, wait: It is funny.

But it's troubling, too. Armesto and his philosophical kin are wagering heavily on the willingness of at least some African-American voters to be swayed by this blatant appeal to bigotry. Maybe it's a good bet. After all, African Americans -- speaking generally -- are among the most socially conservative Americans there are. Nor does one have to dig too deeply to tap a wellspring of black resentment that some gay leaders have adopted the civil rights movement as their inspiration and model.

I will only note by way of response that there's a certain historical resonance here. The makers of these fliers seek to tap black antipathy by way of the church, thereby implying divine sanction for their bigotry. Homophobes are fond of selectively quoting the Bible to prove their hatred is God-ordained.

You know who also favored that tactic? Segregationists and slaveholders before them. Reminds me of a saying: Even the devil can quote scripture.

It goes without saying that the publishers of this rancid little flier ought to be ashamed of themselves. But that goes doubly for any African American who buys its odious message. We ought to understand better than anyone that the model and inspiration of the civil rights movement are valid anywhere oppressed people want to be free. The fact that black preachers even allowed this hatred a home in their pews strongly suggests that at least some of us do not.

And somewhere, Bayard Rustin weeps.

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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