Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Coretta Scott King (1927-2006): We See You, We Hear You by Melia Keeton-Digby, M.Ed
Here in the United States, we are about to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In honor of this sacred day honoring this extraordinary man, I’d like to re-introduce you to a woman you may think you already know: Ms. Coretta Scott King.
For many of us, when we hear the name Coretta Scott King, we think: Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife and widow… and the story stop there. But there is so much more to the story of this beloved, powerful-in-her-own-right woman!
Coretta was born in 1927 in Marion, Alabama, a town drenched in racism and segregation at the time. Her grandparents were former slaves, and her own parents had not been allowed to receive a formal education. For this reason, her parents were adamant that their children be educated. Coretta once quoted her mother as saying, “My children are going to college, even if it means I only have one dress to put on.” Every day, Coretta and her three siblings were bused miles from their home, passing excellent schools, to attend the closest one room black high school. After school, Coretta worked on her family’s farm picking cotton to help earn money for her family. As a child, her family’s lumber mill (and primary source of income) was burned down by white neighbors. Coretta knew hardship and injustice firsthand, but thanks to her mother and the strong ties she developed within the local black church, she grew into a strong, confident woman who believed in a better future for herself and the world.
Upon graduating as valedictorian, Coretta joined her older sister, Edythe, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Edythe had been the first African American student to attend Antioch, paving the way for her little sister to join. In college, Coretta became active in the nascent Civil Rights Movement and joined the Antioch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She forged her own legacy of peace, tolerance, and understanding, and held freedom concerts to raise money for the Civil Rights Movement. (She did all of this before she had even met Martin Luther King, Jr.!) Later, she won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, so she transferred out of Antioch to study singing in Boston, which is where she met her beloved husband.
After much courting, Coretta fell in love with and decided to marry Martin, but she remained a woman unto herself. She even had the vow to obey her husband removed from the ceremony, which was very unusual at the time.
The newlywed couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, when Martin accepted an invitation to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Before long, they found themselves in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Martin was elected leader of the protest movement. Coretta and Martin believed in nonviolent protests as a way of expression consistent with the teachings to which they adhered. During the movement, Coretta, a gifted musician who loved to sing, used her gifts and abilities to enthuse crowds, inspire change, and tell the stories that needed to be told. While raising four children, Coretta made speeches and performed more than thirty fundraising concerts for the cause. She assisted her husband from the earliest days of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement- marching next to him, leading marchers in song, and coordinating supplies and events.
A terrible tragedy occurred on April 4th, 1968. The beloved and wise Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by an evil, racist man. How did Coretta respond to this personal and social tragedy? Did she crawl into her cave of grief and step away from the cause that had meant so much to her and her husband? Not at all. Instead, Coretta took her husband’s place at the helm of the Civil Rights movement. Four days after his death, rather than canceling the march that had already been planned, Ms. King herself led the march. As her involvement in Civil Rights deepened, she extended her focus to include Women’s rights, as well as the rights of LGBT people, for Coretta believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Later that same year, Ms. King established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a living memorial to her husband and his (their) belief in attaining social justice through nonviolence. Today, the King Center continues to allocate millions of dollars in resources and trains thousands of volunteers each year to promote racial harmony and social justice in their communities. We have Coretta to thank for this.
Do you know why Martin Luther King, Jr. day is observed every January as a federal holiday? Because Coretta Scott King lobbied for fourteen (yes- fourteen- how’s that for not giving up on what you believe in!) years to have this date recognized. She finally succeeded when President Regan signed the 1983 bill establishing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday. It was Coretta who tirelessly strived to preserve her husband’s legacy.
One of the most influential African-American leaders of her time, Ms. King received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities; authored three books and a nationally-syndicated newspaper column; and served on and helped found dozens of organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation, and the Black Leadership Roundtable.
During her lifetime, Mrs. King dialogued with heads of state, including prime ministers and presidents, as well as participating in protests alongside rank and file working people of all races. She met with many great spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. She witnessed the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords. She stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. A woman of wisdom, compassion and vision, Coretta Scott King tried to make ours a better world and, in the process, made history.
Coretta Scott King was one of the most influential women leaders in our world, but not unlike many heroines, her place in history has been over-shadowed. As we honor the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this month, may we also recognize his right-hand woman for her contributions, both to Dr. King’s work as he lived, to his legacy after he died, and to her own important work for social justice.
As women and girls rewriting herstory, let us say loud and clear:
We see you. We hear you. Our Sister, Coretta. Thank you for your supreme contributions to making our world a better place.
Author Melia Keeton-Digby, M.Ed, is the founder of The Mother-Daughter Nest, a sacred women’s gathering space in Georgia, USA. She is passionately invested in supporting mothers to raise confident, connected daughters. A mother of three, she works as a Speech-Language Pathologist, Transformational Life Coach and Sacred Circle Facilitator. Her work has been featured in a variety of online and print publications. Her upcoming book, The Heroines Club: A Mother-Daughter Empowerment Circle will be released April 2016.