Andrew Young Remembers Coretta Scott King

Civil rights activist Andrew Young talks about the life and work of Coretta Scott King. Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is currently professor of public affairs at Georgia State University.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

She was born in 1927 in rural Alabama. She went to Antioch College in Ohio, where she majored in education and music, and then on to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied singing. It was in Boston that she met a young theology student, Martin Luther King. They married in 1953 and moved to Alabama the next year. The couple soon befriended another pastor and civil rights activist, Andrew Young.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Human rights activist): I was a young preacher in Georgia and went up to speak at Talladega College and Martin was speaking there, too, in a religious emphasis week. My first wife, Jean, was from the same hometown as Coretta, Marion, Alabama, and Martin invited us to stop off at the house to see his new baby. We also had a new baby. And the thing was that their home had been bombed, and he was well established as a leader of a newly emerging movement, but our first visit was all about the little children. This was 1956.

BLOCK: 1956.

Mr. YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: So they would very recently have moved back down to the South from Boston.

Mr. YOUNG: Yes.

BLOCK: I was interested to read Coretta Scott King had established herself first in Ohio for college and then in Boston for conservatory and didn't particularly want to move back to the South, which was where she had grown up. She knew what awaited them down there, to some extent, it sounded like.

Ms. YOUNG: Well, she knew. But I don't think there was ever any question that she was coming back to the South. I think that most of our parents were inclined to see us escape. But most of us felt that we had to come back south and change things.

BLOCK: She's made it very clear over the years that her commitment to social justice and social activism was intrinsic in her. It was not something that was generated by her relationship with her husband, necessarily.

Mr. YOUNG: Well, she grew up in a small town in Alabama, Marion, Alabama, and her father was a small businessman who, in the course of her growing up, had a trucking company destroyed, a sawmill destroyed and a grocery store destroyed by racists who just didn't think that a black man should be a businessman. But he never stopped and never lost his faith in America. And she shared that same courage.

BLOCK: After her husband died, she became very protective of his legacy. How did she go about protecting that, and what the family stood for?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, you have to remember that shortly after Martin's death, the black community took a turn toward black nationalism. And the first staff of the King Center was trying to turn it into a black nationalist center. Well, that was not true to what he believed. Then, in the involvements with the Parks Department. They wanted to have Martin Luther King's dream, but they didn't want any discussion of his opposition to the war in Vietnam or to his struggle to end poverty in America. And so she had to fight to escape the attempt to sanitize the movement. Every attempt to compromise or to distort his legacy, she had to oppose. She opposed it personally, but in some cases they had to go to court to do it.

BLOCK: Coretta Scott King was able to get the King Center founded. She worked long and hard for passage of the Martin Luther King holiday. What work did she think still needed to be done?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, she also worked with hospital workers and the welfare rights movement. She worked with working women. She continued her work with the peace movement. And she was also involved in upholding gay rights and defending the need for us to treat AIDS as a disease and not some kind of moral plague. You know, she never gave up the fight.

BLOCK: Did she talk to you about James Earl Ray? She and the family had expressed doubts that he acted alone, and, in fact, she had made moves to get him exonerated. Did she talk to you about that?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, we did talk. And I think that there was always a feeling that James Earl Ray was innocent, and that, you know, we would never know the full story of what happened. I think the movement's position was, we knew what killed Martin Luther King, but we were not in the business of, you know, finding out who.

BLOCK: Mr. Young, what will you most remember Coretta Scott King for?

Mr. YOUNG: I remember her as one of the strongest most gracious, most beautiful women I've ever known. And that she was, you know, she was totally committed to this movement, and to the struggle to make America what it ought to be.

BLOCK: Andrew Young, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. YOUNG: Thank you.

BLOCK: Andrew Young the former congressman. He was also ambassador to the United Nations, and mayor of Atlanta. Remembering Coretta Scott King.

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