It is right and proper that we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His work, his writings, and his words made him a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and helped to secure the passage of federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodations and guaranteeing voting rights.
However, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, I would urge us also to remember and celebrate the life and legacy of Mrs. Coretta Scott King, not simply as his wife or his widow, but as a strong and courageous civil rights leader and activist.
Before she married or even met Dr. King, Coretta Scott was active in the peace movement. After marrying Dr. King, Mrs. King continued her work in the peace movement, work that had not yet been embraced by Dr. King. In the early 1960s, she attended disarmament and peace conferences and spoke at peace rallies.
Even after the birth of their children, Mrs. King continued her activism and her advocacy. She not only participated in marches, including the Selma March, but she, along with her children, moved into one of Chicago tenement slums to bring attention to the pervasive poverty of its inhabitants.
After the death of Dr. King, she was faced with several daunting tasks – raising four children as a single parent; preserving and, to some extent, rehabilitating the legacy and reputation of Dr. King; and continuing the struggle for civil rights. No one would have faulted her if she had decided that all of her time and energy had to be focused on her children, but Coretta Scott King undertook and excelled at all those tasks.
Although nowadays it may be difficult to fathom, at the time of Dr. King’s death, his legacy and reputation were under attack in many quarters. The FBI had attempted to label him as a communist sympathizer; stories about his alleged marital infidelities were being spread; his opposition to the Vietnam war had incurred the ire of many politicians, including President Lyndon B. Johnson; and the outbreak of violence during the course of demonstrations led by or participated in by Dr. King, including the March 28th demonstration of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike, had caused some to question the continued effectiveness of nonviolence as a form of protest or resistance.
As part of her efforts to preserve Dr. King’s legacy, Mrs. King devoted a considerable portion of her talent and energy to the Herculean task of having Dr. King’s birthday declared a federal holiday. She spearheaded an effort that began in 1968 and took over fifteen years to come to fruition.
In 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was established, but it was not until 1986 that the holiday was first observed. Even then, there were still many states and localities that were opposed to the idea. The bill which had established the holiday also established the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Commission to oversee observance of the holiday. Part of the Commission’s purpose was to inspire and support efforts to transform the holiday from a federal holiday to holiday that was observed on the state and local level, as well. When some states tried various strategies and subterfuges, such as combining the holiday with other existing state holidays (including holidays honoring Confederate generals) or giving the holiday different names (e.g., Civil Rights Day) to keep from fully recognizing the holiday, Mrs. King continued to press for nationwide recognition of the MLK Holiday. By 2000, due in large part to her efforts, the holiday was finally observed in all fifty states.
Beginning in 1989, I had the privilege of serving (in a representative capacity) as a member of the MLK Holiday Commission. In that role, I had a chance to interact with Mrs. King and to see her in action. Mrs. King guided the Commission with the same dignity and class and courage that was evident throughout her life. I was there when she was called upon to respond to reports about the unsavory and salacious details about Dr. King’s alleged sexual activities that were included in Dr. Ralph David Abernathy’s autobiography. I was impressed with both her protectiveness for Dr. King’s memory and her continued fondness for Dr. Abernathy as she not only refused to give credence to the tales of alleged sexual escapades contained in the book but also refused to lash out at Dr. Abernathy. I was also there when she was called upon to respond to assertions that Dr. King had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation. Again, I was impressed with her unwavering support for and protection of Dr. King’s legacy, as she adopted as her mantra the stirring words from a New York Times editorial that “Martin Luther King’s courage was not copied; and there was no plagiarism in his power.”
Mrs. King did not confine her efforts to preserving Dr. King’s legacy. She also used her considerable voice and political clout to fight for the rights of women, to battle apartheid and to champion the rights of the LGBTQIA community, even though that position put her at cross purposes with a number of African American ministers. By the time of her death, she had created her own legacy, one that could stand on its own, separate and apart from her husband.
So, as we observe the MLK Holiday, let us also remember Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage, her strength, and her accomplishments.