Coretta Scott King was more than civil rights widow
February 1, 2006
Coretta Scott King, who died on Jan. 31, will perhaps forever be known as the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But there was much more to Coretta King than that.
She was a serious thinker, a committed activist, a talented musician and an outspoken woman whose influence and activism extended well beyond the career of her famous husband, who was assassinated in 1968.
Born on a farm in Alabama in 1927, she traveled north in 1945 to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she was one of only six black students. She encountered racism there but would not be deterred from her goal of becoming a teacher and a professional musician. She went on to pursue her graduate studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which is where she met her future husband.
Coretta Scott was a civil rights activist years before she met King. While a student at Antioch, she was banned from student teaching at a nearby integrated school because one of her supervisors felt black teachers should not teach white children. She protested the restriction and decided to join the campus NAACP chapter as a result.
She later supported Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in the 1948 presidential campaign, becoming a student delegate to the party's national convention that year.
After her marriage to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953, she took on the roles of wife and mother. However, she never abandoned her political beliefs or moral convictions.
Unfortunately, after her husband was catapulted to international acclaim in the 1950s and '60s, most political observers and historians relegated her to his very large and encompassing shadow.
Coretta Scott King, to some extent, embraced this traditional role of helpmate to her husband, but it was never as simple as that.
She was a supporter of King, and she tolerated what biographers have reported as a troubled and sexist marriage. But there was also a sense of purpose and determination that was all her own.
She traveled the world with King, marched alongside him and urged him to take a stand against the war in Vietnam before he himself had decided to do so.
The real strength of her character, however, is perhaps best evident in the work she did and the stances she took after her husband's death. She used the platform his name gave her to deliver some courageous and compelling messages.
For nearly 40 years, Ms. King was a syndicated columnist, public speaker and protester.
The founding president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, she joined civil disobedience actions to protest the racist system of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and later traveled to that country to express her solidarity with its people.
She lectured at Harvard University, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and in churches, schools and community centers all over the United States.
She called for more funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and research.
She demanded a moratorium on the death penalty.
She supported gun control legislation and a cancellation of Africa's debt as a strategy for development.
And in a significant move, when black ministers in Atlanta rallied in 2004 to oppose gay marriage, she opposed them as shortsighted and wrongheaded. She defended gay rights as a form of civil rights, and condemned gay bashing.
In short, she took stances on issues that went well beyond the civil rights consensus of the 1960s.
History has unfairly placed women like Coretta Scott King in the margins and the footnotes of its texts. It is time we remember them as more than civil rights movement wives and widows. We should also recognize them as conscious historical actors and activists in their own right.
Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning biography "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" (UNC Press, 2003). She can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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