The Legacy of Coretta Scott King
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
The world has lost one of the great civil right leaders and black America has lost a treasure. Coretta Scott King has died at the age of 78. She suffered a stroke in August of 2005 from which she never fully recovered. In spite of that, her presence remained a guiding one for her family and her husband's legacy. She served on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, not behind her famous husband but beside him, while raising her four children. Mrs. King spoke in 2003 with NPR about her work in the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equality.
Ms. CORETTA SCOTT KING (Civil Rights Leader): I never thought of it as a sacrifice during the time I was involved. I thought of it as a commitment. I had a very strong and deep commitment to the struggle. Starting in my college days, I was an activist. I was not only a peace activist, I was a political activist. I went to my first political convention in 1948 as a student delegate. So when Montgomery started, it was just a natural for me to feel very much involved, even though my first child had just been born, and I could not be as physically active. But I was very much involved spiritually and making sure that I kept up with everything, reading the newspapers and so on.
GORDON: Joining me to discuss her life and work is civil rights leader and King family friend, former ambassador Andrew Young. Andrew Young, welcome. A sad day for all of us today. Talk to us about a woman that you knew oh so well.
Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Former Ambassador): Well, I'll tell you, Coretta is one of the great women of our time. She grew up in rural Alabama, a little town of about 3,000 people, and she had much more bitter experiences of racism and segregation than most of us had, than Martin and myself had, who grew up in cities. Her father was an entrepreneur. He had a trucking company and a saw mill and a grocery store. And during her childhood, the Klan types burned all of them out. But he never gave up. They lived on a farm and her rural upbringing really made her the strong person that she was.
Her daddy told me that she was the best cotton picker in the family, and that she could pick 200 pounds of cotton on a Saturday because she wanted to be able to get the cotton picked so she could stay late and do her music rehearsals after school. She went on to Antioch College in Ohio, and New England Conservatory of Music, where she met Martin. But she was already a peace activist and already very knowledgeable of non-violence, even when she met Martin. In fact, that was probably one of the things that drew them together.
Well, I met her first just a few weeks after her home had been bombed. And she was sitting there with young Yolanda in her arms, and not the least bit afraid or not thinking about moving out of Montgomery, just determined to carry on the struggle. And that's the way she always was.
She marched with us in Selma and in Birmingham after Martin's death. She was active in organizing hospital workers. She took a position on gay rights. She opposed the war in Vietnam and was active with Women Strike for Peace. She was a phenomenal person and a very good mother, who raised four wonderful children. None of the children have ever had any major problems. I never had to get any of them out of jail. They all went to school. Bernice has a law degree and a divinity school degree. Martin went to Morehouse, and I think Yolanda went to--Martin and Dexter went to Morehouse--and Yolanda went to Smith.
Yolanda and Bernice, and Dexter have written books already. They're great kids who will carry on the work of their mother and father in their own way. But she's one of a kind, and there are not many people like her in the world.
GORDON: Indeed. I often called her Black America's first lady, and it is a sad day for all of us. But we should revel in the time that we knew her life and we appreciate --
Mr. YOUNG: I tell you, all she went through, I never heard her complain and I never heard her back away from a challenge. She was tough stuff.
GORDON: Indeed. Andrew Young, thank you very much for your remembrances today.
Mr. YOUNG: Very good. Thanks a lot.
GORDON: Joining me now are two people who also knew her well, author and activist Dick Gregory and Professor Mary Frances Berry of the University of Pennsylvania. I thank you both for joining us. Dick, let me start with you and the idea that this was not an easy life for Mrs. King after her husband's death, because, first and foremost, America, particularly black America, wanted her to remain Dr. King's widow.
Mr. DICK GREGORY (Author and Activist): Yes. Well, let me just say, as sad as this day is, it's kind of a happy day for me the fact that she was able to die from natural causes. By that I mean she wasn't gunned down; she wasn't shot in the church the same day King's mother was; and she was out there on that front line. She made as many white folks mad as he did, because she wasn't in the background. She was there on the front line. And who would have ever believed four days after his death she would be leading a march in Memphis.
And the fact that she was able, with no bitterness--as many times as I was around her, no bitterness, no meanness, just kindness and that gentleness; and I used to just love to talk with her, just make her laugh. I was with her in the hospital, and it was kind of sad that she couldn't talk and answer me when I was talking to her. But we had fun that day.
GORDON: Mary Frances Berry, let me ask you this. Here's the remarkable thing about this woman. When we look back historically, as much as Dr. King did, here is a woman who remained on the front lines, obviously because of his death, much longer and kept the Civil Rights Movement in the fore.
Ms. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Absolutely. I was thinking when Dick and Andy were talking of how it's been 38 years since Martin was assassinated, and Coretta had all that time with her dignified appearance, and her holding up the banner of Martin Luther, was called upon by every cause, whether it was race and black people, or women, or peace, or whatever it was all because of what she and Martin believed in to be in the forefront of every single struggle, every single--whether it was demonstration, or whether it was an issue.
And I can recall two things in particular. She also reveled--Dick and Andy are right--she reveled in struggle. She liked the solidarity of being in movement, doing something for justice. And I would complain, but she wouldn't. I remember one time we were at a march about the Haitians, trying to change the policy on Haitian refugees, and it was the last one that Arthur Ashe was involved in before he died. And it was hot as I don't know what, and I was sweating, and I was complaining to Coretta. And she said, oh, don't complain.
I like being here. Besides the cause, we all get to get together for one more time. And then when she came out for supporting rights for gays and lesbians, she told me, she said, you know, Martin would have wanted this. It's consistent with his philosophy.
Now, some of the men who were with him are kind of nervous about it, but you come down and stand with me, and we're going to go out here, and we're going to be for this, because this is what Martin was for, and it was his philosophy. She held up the banner. She was part of our lives, and she was the symbol of the struggle for at least, almost 50 years, she and Martin and then 38 years, and I, too, am happy that she went peacefully, and in a sense, her trouble's over, and ours are still going on.
GORDON: Yeah. Dick, here's what's amazing to me: I, too, had a grand opportunity of spending time with Mrs. King. Never once, never once did I see this woman ever lose her dignity.
Mr. GREGORY: Never. You know, some of us sometime we have to get ourself together to go meet the cameras, and then after it's over. She never, ever had the pain or the hatred or the meanness, and let us not forget the role she played in the liberation of South Africa, with Nelson Mandela, was always on the plane flying over there or the children was over there, and had it not been for her, there would not be no Center for Non-Violent Change, and people come in from all over the world, we don't know about it because the New York Times don't tell the world, all over the world, they come in and take classes and lessons of nonviolence, because she dared spend the time and the energy and the money to put that together.
Ms. BERRY: It's also, when you mentioned South Africa, Dick, I was thinking, when we put together the Free South Africa movement and got arrested at the embassy in Washington and it started, Randall and all the rest of us and Will Fontlaroy(ph), the whole thing that ended up in sanctions and that, we called up Coretta. I remember, we were sitting in Walter's office, and we all got on the phone and got Coretta, the first day when we were planning it, and said, well, we want you to be on the steering committee and you to head it up.
She said, well, what is it about, and we told her, and then we said, do you want to come and find out the details? She said, who's involved? And we told her, and she said, put my name down first, and she stayed with it from the beginning. It was consistent with everything she believed, and she put her time and energy and enjoyed the struggle of being involved in it.
Mr. GREGORY: Yes.
GORDON: Well, let me do this, Dick because I want to come back with you and Mary on the other side of our break and just quickly talk to you about what we need to do to remember this woman, and that is involving ourselves as a community with the King Center. So if you both will bear with me, we'll take a quick break here and come back with more.
We'll also have our roundtable, more on the life of Coretta Scott King and the latest on Condoleezza Rice's attempts to stop aid to the new Palestinian-led government.
GORDON: This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Co-Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): After Martin's death, we did not know exactly what role she would choose to play, but it wasn't long before we understood. She went to Memphis and led a march and addressed the multitude of people there, and when she came back, she told me that she sensed a communication with the masses of people there that inspired her, and that she felt that she would have to, in addition to being a mother, that she would have to maintain some relationship with meaning to the movement.
GORDON: That was Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and long-time friend of Coretta Scott King, who we unfortunately lost today. This is usually our segment for our roundtable. We're going to get to an abbreviated version of that in just a moment, but we want to continue quickly our discussion with activist Dick Gregory and Professor Mary Frances Berry, both of whom were very good friends with Coretta Scott King.
I want to ask you both, with only just a couple of minutes left, Dick and Mary, the idea of continuing her legacy and what our community needs to do. Dick, so much attention being paid to the King Center and the state it is in, if we really want to salute this woman's legacy and her life, this should be something that we turn our attention to.
Mr. GREGORY: Yeah, I think what we have to do now is just hold our breath until after the funeral arrangements, and the family will tell us which way to go. Let me just say this, whenever you die from this planet, I feel you go some place, and my trip going to be so long to wherever I go, I got instructions from my wife to put a couple of backpacks. Coretta lived so heavenly and so close to Heaven that her passing, Heaven is a short trip for her. She's probably already there.
Ms. BERRY: She is already there, and I think that one of the things that she wanted to do so much and wasn't able to do was to have the resources to make the King Center a place where nonviolence was discussed, where people were brought in from all over, there were panels, there were issues, grappling with the issues of the day, on a continuous basis. It never had the resources that it needed, and I think that one of the things to do, and I hope the family will do this, is to reevaluate the role of the King Center, and not just as a place for people to visit, you know, and talk, you know, and know that it's Martin Luther King, but as a place to generate ideas about peace and justice and how we can achieve it in the world.
GORDON: All right. Mary Frances Berry and Dick Gregory, thank you so much. We also thank Andy Young and Joseph Lowery for their remembrances of this wonderful woman. I thank you both.
Mr. GREGORY: Thank you much. God bless you.
Ms. BERRY: Thanks. Thanks.
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