ATLANTA — The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will join a prominent Atlanta pastor today in a march that opposes same-sex marriage as part of a larger, church-centered movement. The event has been criticized by gay-rights organizations, which say it betrays the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
King's widow, Coretta Scott King, has supported marriage rights for gays and lesbians, as have civil rights figures such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP.
The "Reigniting the Legacy" march, to be led by King and Bishop Eddie L. Long, will begin at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Organizers said they expected 100 pastors and 10,000 marchers to participate.
Long, whose New Birth Missionary Baptist Church has 25,000 members, said his goal was to reestablish an authoritative voice for the black church on issues including protection of marriage, school choice, affordable healthcare and "wealth creation" for minorities.
"There has not been a unified voice out of our community since the assassination of Dr. King," Long said. A strong segment of society wants, he said, "to go back to basic, fundamental moral beliefs."
Gay-rights advocates are well aware of Long's opposition to same-sex marriage. Still, Chuck Bowen, executive director for Georgia Equality, said he was surprised to learn about the march.
"I think it's very sad. I think he's abusing the good name of Dr. King and the work he did creating equality for all Americans," Bowen said.
Rosalind McGinnis, managing director of the King Center, which includes in its holdings the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said that the site of the march's start is public property and that the center was "not endorsing, nor are we affiliated with Bishop Eddie Long in any way."
Long was not available for comment Friday, but said in a written statement that the march aimed not "to protest same-sex marriage, but to present a unified version of righteousness and justice."
In November, Georgia voters approved a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In the run-up to the election, the issue split Georgia's black leadership, sometimes setting pastors at odds with the political caucus forged in the civil rights era. A Pew Research Center poll taken in October showed that 60% of black Americans opposed legalizing gay marriage.
In an interview this week, Bernice King acknowledged that the issue has left painful rifts.
"The question is, how do you overcome that pain?" she said. "It may be the wedge that stays with us for a long time. We have to get to a place where it does not become the most defining issue of our time."
Bernice King, 41, the Kings' youngest daughter, has degrees in law and divinity from Emory University and is known as a powerful orator on race and social justice. Recently, she said, she has become the "spiritual daughter" of Long, who has built New Birth into the largest of Atlanta's megachurches. Among the congregation are prominent state, city and county officials.
Bond said he was disturbed to hear that the march was being linked with Martin Luther King Jr.'s name. The civil-rights leader's most trusted associate, Bayard Rustin, was "an out gay man who was unapologetic about his sexuality," Bond said.
"With so many problems afflicting black Americans, you wonder, what harm is done by people in love?" Bond said.