By Dr. Barbara Reynolds
Four years have passed since the death of Coretta Scott King on January 30, 2006.
What greater time than now to commemorate her legacy by naming schools, federal and state office buildings and highways after her. King’s activism before, during and after the death of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped transform this nation, an accomplishment too important to be marginalized or forgotten.
In taped interviews over a two-year period to complete a biography, Mrs. King often emphasized that she was much more than just the wife or the widow of her husband. “I was an activist when I met him. I was a partner with him in the movement and I remained an activist after Martin was gone. I was married to the man I loved, but I was also married to the cause which helped me to go on without him.”
Here is a woman whose life is a stand- alone heroic epic. As a young girl she sometimes worked in the piercing hot sun of Alabama as a hired-hand picking cotton for two dollars a week, but rose in prominence to help pick presidents, mayors, and congressional leaders.
Mrs. King grew to womanhood in the 40’s when it was unacceptable for women to further their dreams outside the confines of their homes. Yet, she proved that a woman could become a housewife, raise four children and still become a co-partner on a violent battlefield with her husband in one of the world’s greatest human rights movement.
As a student at Antioch College, she became involved in the peace movement. “Before I ever met Martin in 1952 I was involved in politics. I did not become an activist after Martin’s death, as some might think. I was an activist when I met him.
Before she married King, she had to learn to live with fear. As a teenager, whites home burned down her family. Once married, threats were constant and sometimes real. She was at home with her infant daughter, Yolanda, when her house was bombed during the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. “The bombing helped me to face fear and understand my faith in God was stronger than my fears.”
After Martin’s assassination, she said: “I had to fight back the tears and find the strength within to perpetuate Martin’s legacy by keeping the Dream alive. “We did that through the creation of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change, which I envisioned as the West Point of non-violence. We created non-violent training programs that are still being conducted around the world. We promoted a national holiday as a model for commemorating Martin’s sacrifice and service for others to follow. Wherever there was injustice--war, discrimination against women, gays, and the disadvantaged-- I did my best to show up and exert moral persuasion for what is right.
Mrs. King said, “We spurred redevelopment in Atlanta, creating the diversity that helped attract the 1996 Summer Olympics and the Center continues to attract visitors from around the world, which brings in million to Atlanta through tourism.”
So far, Atlanta has not named any major buildings or highways after Mrs. King. This special recognition has been bestowed on many other movement leaders, such as the late Ralph D. Abernathy and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, both of whom were top King aides.
This shortcoming bothers loyalists, such as Steve Klein, the King Center’s Communications Director. “After all she did for the nation, especially Atlanta, it is surprisingly that so little has been done in her honor. A charter school named after her is about it. She took a deteriorating community, vacant lots and blight and through her work there is a King Complex, with a federal park, the King birth home, the gravesites where both Kings are entombed, all of which has become a spiritual Mecca.”
Dr. King once said of Coretta, “No matter where I am if she is not with me she is only a heartbeat away.” Yet, no matter who stood beside Dr. King, he would overshadow them in life as well as death. Nevertheless Mrs. King must not be allowed to recede in the shadows of history. She once told me, “My story is a freedom song, of struggle. It about finding one’s purpose, how to overcome fear and to stand up for causes bigger than one’s self.”
Mrs. King’s story must be writ large. If we fail to do so, a respect for process, perspective and posterity will suffer.
Journalism necessity requires shorthand. To say she built a Center and spoke out for injustice requires only a few words. It sounds easy, however, it was not. Somehow we must take the time to dig into the details of how many years all that took, how many tears were shed in the process.
Moreover, it is difficult to communicate to a younger generation how the nation moved from people being killed for trying to exercise their voting rights to the election of the first black president without studying the life of activists like Mrs. King who aided in the transformation.
Mrs. King worked tirelessly to preserve her husband’s legacy, which in the end became her farewell gift to the nation as well... It seems only right to commemorate both Kings because they were two souls with one goal. And they served our country well.
Dr. Barbara Reynolds is an ordained minister and author of five books, one of which is entitled No I Won’t Shut Up for which Mrs. King wrote the foreword.