Remembering first lady of civil rights


UMNS Commentary

By Rev. Chester Jones


Biographer Lynn Norment wrote that “Although she first achieved prominence as the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a famous and charismatic leader, Coretta Scott King has made the transition from the supportive spouse to establishing herself as a leader in her own right.”

From the time Dr. King was chosen to lead the historic bus boycott until he was assassinated in Memphis, Mrs. King was by his side. Coretta King was at his side in every civil rights demonstration. She traveled from Montgomery to India, from Washington to Oslo with Martin to support civil and human rights.

Mrs. King considered it a privilege and a blessing to be the wife and partner of a person who had such a profound influence on civil rights. But she was also clear that her commitment stretched back further than her marriage to Martin.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, she knew the injustice of segregation from her childhood. She once told a reporter, “I didn’t learn my commitment from Martin; we just converged at a certain time.” 

It was this longstanding commitment that inspired her continued involvement beyond Dr. King’s assassination. Her commitment to living the dream helped her overcome fear. Less than a week after Dr. King’s death, Mrs. King and her three oldest children led the march through Memphis on behalf of the sanitation workers.

She continued this activism throughout her life and expanded her commitments beyond those of race. She participated in the “Poor Man’s March,” met with Nelson Mandela in South Africa to work against apartheid and served on the board of the National Organization of Women. She called all women “to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war.” 

She also worked to continue the dream of her husband by establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Her work and efforts there and around the world, continue to remind us that Martin’s dream remains unfulfilled, that ending racism is still an unfinished agenda. However, through the work of both Martin and Coretta, the world has been blessed to see the influence and impact one couple can have on a movement.

Through Mrs. King’s efforts, a bill was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan to make the third Monday in January a celebration in honor of Dr. King. The work that she did in organizing petitions, gathering signatures and vigilantly lobbying Congress on behalf of this holiday exemplified Mrs. King’s persistence and commitment to keeping her husband’s legacy alive. 

My heart was touched when President Bush walked up to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address and paused to honor Mrs. King. He said, “Today our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream. Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King.”

As we celebrate Mrs. King’s life, we must renew our commitment to the dream she shared with Dr. King — that we should all be free some day.

Jones is top staff executive of the General Commission on Religion and Race.