This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Coretta Scott King
“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by
the compassionate actions of its members… a heart of grace and a soul generated
-Coretta Scott King
Somehow, many of us have managed to forget the critical role
Coretta Scott King played in the Civil Rights Movement. As the wife of Martin Luther King, Coretta
would automatically hold some level of importance but her accomplishments
during and after his lifetime have been incredible and valuable. Most accounts
of Mrs. King focus on her status as a loving wife and homemaker but she was
much more a partner to Rev. King than was typical (or publicly acceptable)
during the 1950s. It is clear that she made remarkable efforts at maintaining
domestic tranquility in the midst of incredibly trying circumstances.
While her status as a symbol of love was incredibly valuable
to the Movement, Coretta Scott King went far beyond the prescribed models of
femininity. She was such a competent leader that she presided over the first
meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Mrs. King was also a
talented enough singer that she performed ‘freedom concerts’ to raise money for
civil rights initiatives.
For more than a decade, the Kings were constantly under the threat
of death and indeed had their home bombed multiple times. As the mother of four
children, Mrs. King could have easily asked her husband to take a less public
profile yet she publicly (and privately!) insisted that her resolve was only
strengthened by the violence perpetrated against her family. After her husband’s
assassination in 1968, Mrs. King failed to be cowed and raised her own public
profile by founding the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social
Eventually, Coretta Scott King became an outspoken opponent
of South Africa’s apartheid regime, a dedicated peace activist and one of the
first prominent Blacks to advocate for same sex marriage rights. Mrs. King also
led the way for the creation of the King federal holiday.* Mrs. King continued
to grow and change as she aged, eventually embracing veganism and her role as
the First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement.
For nearly forty years after Martin Luther King’s murder,
Coretta Scott King served as a living symbol of the highest ideals of the Movement.
She focused continuing attention on the issues of racism, poverty, violence and
inequality that so deeply informed her work and life. It is particularly
appropriate that she be celebrated on Valentine’s Day as she continues to serve
as a tremendous symbol of love.
Today I am grateful for Coretta Scott King. You should be
*- Alongside Stevie
This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Ralph Abernathy
“Bring on your tear gas, bring on your grenades, your new
supplies of Mace, your state troopers and even your National Guards. But let
the record show we ain’t going to be turned around.”
– Ralph Abernathy
Despite being older and initially more recognized than
Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy will always be viewed as MLK’s
sidekick. But what an important sidekick.
Ralph Abernathy was something of a prodigy, having become
the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s largest Black church at only 25. It was
this position that helped make Abernathy such a prominent member of the local
NAACP and a natural leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the
organization built around the Montgomery bus boycott. Soon after, Abernathy
became Vice President in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC),
among the most prominent of civil rights organizations.
Abernathy never received the public acclaim of King but was
his most valued ally. Racist groups were well aware of Abernathy’s importance
to the civil rights movement and attempted to assassinate him on numerous
occasions. Abernathy was viewed within the movement as King’s most important strategist
and best friend. In the minds of some, Abernathy had more sway over King’s
thinking than even his wife, Coretta Scott King.*
After King’s murder, Abernathy assumed the presidency of
SCLC and fulfilled King’s dream for a Poor People’s Campaign, an attempt to
advocate for the needs of the most desperate Americans, regardless of their
race. Even as the civil rights coalition fractured, Abernathy remained active
in social issues. He worked to resolve the Wounded Knee conflict between
American Indian activists and the federal government; became President of the
World Peace Council; and led numerous initiatives to guarantee economic
While Martin Luther King was the unquestioned leader of the mainstream
civil rights movement, Ralph Abernathy played a critical role in it. His
allegiance to King and support of the vision of racial equality was an
inimitable boon to the movement. Few people could have stood so firmly in so
large a shadow.
Today I am grateful for Ralph Abernathy. You should be too.
*Check back Wednesday.
This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Rosa Parks
“I had not
planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail.
But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt
that we had endured that too long.”
Today is the 100th birthday of the woman many describe as “the
mother of the Civil Rights Movement”, Rosa Parks. That kind epithet acknowledges Parks’ role in
starting the Montgomery Bus Boycott which launched the national career of
Martin Luther King Jr. and is often seen as the first example of a new type of
civil rights struggle. At the same time, though, viewing Parks as a matronly figure reinforces the false idea that Parks was an accidental heroine.
Many of us now have an image of Parks as an old woman (she
lived into her 90s) who was so exhausted and worn down that by December 1955,
she just couldn’t muster the energy to move further back on the public bus she
rode home. In reality, the actions Parks
became famous for were in no way accidental. Parks was a longtime community
activist and, in her early 40s, vibrant, strong and defiant. Parks was
perfectly aware that she would suffer the public humiliation of an arrest and
would likely suffer long term consequences for her actions. In fact, Parks was
fired from her job.
Part of what I hope folks can take a moment to acknowledge
is that when Rosa Parks began her personal fight against the segregation of the
bus system, she was doing it on her own. There was no plan to create a boycott
of the buses. There was no Montgomery Improvement Association. There was no
guarantee that Parks would even be supported by the Black community in
Montgomery. Rosa Parks fought against an unjust system, not because she knew
she would win but because she knew the system was unjust. For that she deserves
to be richly celebrated.
Today I am grateful for Rosa Parks. You should be too.