Wednesday, January 21, 2015
January 21, 2015: MLK Stories: Coretta Scott King
[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On why and how we should better remember King’s partner, in life and in activism.
In a January 1966 interview with New Lady magazine, Coretta Scott King argued that the stories of the Civil Rights Movement far too often left out its female participants. “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle,” she noted. “By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” As I have written elsewhere in this space, even the one woman consistently present in our collective memories of Civil Rights, Rosa Parks, has been generally turned into nothing more than a tired working woman, rather than the longtime activist and leader she was. So I agree entirely with Coretta Scott King, believe that the problem hasn’t really been addressed in the half-century since her interview, and would argue that she herself represents a perfect opportunity for us to better engage with women in the Civil Rights Movement.
For one thing, Scott King was there with her husband at every stage of his activism and leadership, complementing his efforts with her own. When she married King in 1953 she gave up a promising career in music performance and education (she was on a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music when the two met in early 1952), but in so doing also continued along an activist path that was well underway by that time: while at Ohio’s Antioch College she had joined both the college chapter of the NAACP and its Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committee, and had petitioned the administration to grant her a teaching placement in a local school despite a discriminatory denial. After their marriage, despite bearing and raising four children in eight years (from Yolanda in 1955 to Bernice in 1963, with Martin III and Dexter in between), Scott King worked alongside her husband in his evolving career, not only accompanying him to marches and protests in Montgomery and Selma but also doing her own consistent advocacy for Civil Rights legislation.
For another and even more inspiring thing, after her husband’s 1968 assassination Scott King continued and expanded his efforts and legacy, all while raising their four children on her own. In the years immediately following the assassination, for example, she both published her memoirs, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969) and founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a pioneering institution for which she served as president and CEO for many years. Over the next few decades, so brought her activist perspective to bear on a number of other issues, from helping lead an anti-apartheid protest outside the South African embassy in 1985 to chairing a 1995 effort to register one million African American women voters ahead of the following year’s elections. Because of the tragic killings of King and Malcolm X, it can feel difficult to connect Civil Rights leaders to the events and issues of subsequent decades—but like another prominent female Civil Rights activist, Yuri Kochiyama, Coretta Scott King illustrates how fully the 50s and 60s efforts continued and expanded in the years beyond. Just one more reason to better remember her life and work!
Next MLK story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?