On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I wanted to honor his life and work but also remember the women of the civil rights movement. I began by reading about Coretta Scott King, and learned she is the reason we have a federal holiday to remember Dr. King. Following his assassination in 1968 she founded The King Center and led an educational and lobbying campaign to establish his birthday as a national holiday. After 15 years of work, a congressional act signed by Ronald Regan made the day official in 1983.
Born in 1927 in Marion, Alabama, Coretta Scott must have been remarkable from the time she was quite young. She graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, then earned a B. A. in music from Antioch College in Ohio. She went on earn another bachelor’s degree in violin and vocal performance at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. There she met Martin Luther King, Jr., who was studying for a doctorate in theology at Boston University. They married in 1953.
According to The King Center, most of Mrs. King’s time during her 20’s and 30’s was spent being a mother of four and a pastor’s wife, but she also spoke throughout the Movement to civic, church, college, and other groups. She took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and worked to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The King’s youngest child was 5 years old when Dr. King was killed, and it seems from that moment Coretta Scott King became a world leader for peace and equality in her own right.
The King Center writes that hers was “a life devoted to the highest values of human dignity in service to social change. Mrs. King traveled throughout the world speaking out on behalf of racial and economic justice, women’s and children’s rights, gay and lesbian dignity, religious freedom, the needs of the poor and homeless, full-employment, health care, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and environmental justice.” She led goodwill missions and spoke at peace rallies in the United States and worldwide. She was a coalition builder, a peacemaker, and a leader who dialoged with a great many of the 20th century’s most important political and religious leaders. She authored three books and kept her husband’s philosophies alive in her work as President and CEO of The King Center. She died in 2006 following a heart attack and stroke.
I’m struck by several things in my limited knowledge of her life. First, that she was someone who got things done. She didn’t have the advanced degree or professional experience that her husband had, but she did have deeply held convictions, and she accomplished a great deal with those convictions. Second, she went beyond the cultural expectations for women during her time. She became an adult before women’s rights were a full-bodied political movement but obviously felt called and capable of taking the podium herself, as much as possible while she cared for young children, and then more so after her children were older. Finally, I appreciate the arc of her life. She invested in her personal development through her teens and twenties, married someone who could be her equal, met the important demands of raising her babies, and then put her whole self into her work during the second half of her life.
I’m inspired by her commitment to peace and justice, and by her energy and courage in working for them throughout her life. She and her husband were both incredible forces for good in the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a modern prophet who pushed the United States toward change that had to happen if it was to live up to its ideal that all people are created equal. It’s interesting to me that the reason we pause to remember him on this day each year is because Coretta Scott King fought for recognition of his life and work.