Coretta Scott King, a Leader in Her Own Right

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As the nation and the world says goodbye to Coretta Scott King, commentator Lester Spence says she should not only be remembered for being the widow of a great civil rights leader, but also for her own work on the front lines of the freedom movement.

ED GORDON, host:

As the country says goodbye to Coretta Scott King, Commentator Lester Spence reminds us she should be remembered not only for being the widow of a great civil rights leader, but also for her own work on the front lines of the freedom movement.

LESTER SPENCE reporting: The morning we as a nation found out that Coretta Scott-King passed away gently in her sleep, I woke up to a request for a radio interview about her death. Before I got onto the show, I thought about what I would say.

My thoughts turned quickly to her role as a supporter, her role as a mother, her role as a confidant to her husband. Even when their lives were threatened daily by racists, she stood by her husband and provided comfort for their family; at least that's what I planned to say, but I caught myself.

Isn't that the line we normally hear about women who were known largely because of the activities of their husbands? So, just to be sure, I did some quick research on a website called, appropriately, What I found surprised me. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded and named Martin Luther King, Jr. as its first president, their coffers were far from flush. Particularly given the task they set for themselves, the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation, they had little money for staff, little money for travel, little money for bail if they needed it.

Coretta Scott King stepped into the gap. Before Mrs. King married Martin, she was a classically trained performer who had the skill to become a concert hall singer in the mold of a Kathleen Battle. When the SCLC needed money, it was Coretta Scott King who came to the fore, organizing a series of Freedom Concerts telling the story of the civil rights movement through a combination of prose, poetry and performance.

Arguably, without those concerts, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would not have had the money to fight white supremacy, but we only know her as mother, wife and friend. As Dr. King began to travel the world, speaking out against racism and later class-based oppression, we know Coretta as the wife who traveled with him.

Mrs. King though, was a powerful order of her own. She was the first woman ever invited to give the class day address at Harvard University. She was the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul's cathedral in London. And even before Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam War with speeches that sound like they could have been delivered today, Coretta was a staunch advocate of a peace that knew no international borders.

Finally, when Dr. King was brutally assassinated on that cold day in Memphis, it was Coretta who picked up the pieces and ensured that his legacy would continue on; not just by speaking on his behalf or serving as a symbol, but by building the Center for Non-Violent Change that bears her husband's name.

I appreciate the work of the various male leaders that we routinely valorize and celebrate, whether it be Dr. King, Malcolm X or Medgar Evers; but the way we celebrate their lives and that of their wives, in passing, needs to be rethought. Coretta Scott King was a valiant heroine in her own right. She was more than just a mother, more than just a comforter. She was an organizer and a fighter. She was a fundraiser and an institution builder.

For the sake of my daughters, Imani(ph) and Neara(ph) and young women everywhere, I urge that this is what we remember her for.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Lester Spence is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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