From the Vault: Coretta Scott King, a Revolutionary Woman

When we tell the story of radical African-American activism in the 20th century, we will finally accept Coretta Scott King as the truly revolutionary figure that she was.

Coretta Scott King attends a ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington August 23, 2003. ( Allison Silberberg/Getty Images)

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Ms.—a few months after Coretta Scott King died on January 30, 2006.


While Coretta Scott King was celebrated as a civil rights icon, her vision of “the beloved community” was bolder and more revolutionary than that of her husband Martin.

Deeply committed to racial and economic justice, as well as nonviolent social change, she was also a strong advocate for women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, trade unions, affirmative action, world peace. , universal health care, gun control, nuclear disarmament, the emancipation of convicted felons, HIV/AIDS education/prevention/treatment and a wide range of other social issues that placed her outside the mainstream of American politics and the civil rights establishment.

His commitment to human rights was total and unwavering. Criticizing Congress for investing in questionable military actions over the past four years, she reminded the academic audience that “in addition to the terrible loss of life…we have spent over $200 billion on war. [in Iraq], with no end in sight.

She believed that the United States would be better served if resources were devoted to improving schools, supporting tuition and training programs for at-risk youth. Addressing the class of 1982 from Antioch College, she asked, “Isn’t it strange that the rulers of nations can speak so eloquently of peace as they prepare for war ? … There is no way to make peace while preparing for war.

His outspoken support for same-sex marriages was perhaps his most controversial recent stance, although his advocacy of gay rights began over a decade ago. During a speech at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey in March 2004, King asserted, “A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay-bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”

Unlike many civil rights leaders, she saw the similarities between the struggle for black liberation and the gay and lesbian rights movement, saying, “We need to launch a national campaign against homophobia in the black community. .

Rarely named or even noticed, King’s feminist values ​​were evident in both her personal and political life. When she married Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953, long before the modern feminist movement and its criticisms of the patriarchal institution of marriage, Coretta demystified the tradition by urging Daddy King – her husband’s Baptist pastor father who married them – that the standard promise to obey her husband be omitted from their vows.

Coretta debunked the tradition by insisting to Daddy King – her husband’s Baptist pastor father who married them – that the standard promise to obey her husband be omitted from their vows.

Although Martin wants her to be a traditional wife and mother by staying home to raise their four children, she insisted on a more genuine partnership when it came to her participation in the movement. Her unwavering belief in the importance of women’s role in social transformation was a recurring theme in her speeches. Just two months after her husband’s assassination, she spoke at the Campaign of the poor at the Lincoln Memorial in June 1968, and announced that it was time for “a strong bloc of women’s power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war”.

Almost a decade later, Alice Walker would interview Coretta at her home in Atlanta. Walker was curious to know why black women seemed to be hostile to the women’s liberation movement. King’s response clearly illuminates her notions of feminism: “If women become irrevocably involved in social issues, they will find themselves powerful as activists. and as women.

Although we know that Martin did not address women’s rights, Coretta told Alice that they speak frequently about the importance of organizing women and that she regrets that he did not address the issues women. Although King did not discuss with Walker her own connection to the women’s movement, she had hosted NOW’s second convention in Atlanta and served as commissioner for President Jimmy Carter’s International Women’s Year Commission, directed by Bella Abzug. And on what would have been her husband’s 50th birthday, Coretta highlighted not only the ongoing struggle to make his birthday a national holiday, but also the less publicized drive to pass the amendment on the equal rights (ERA).

When the grand narrative of American feminism is rewritten, it will be a more extraordinary “story” when the pantheon of female warriors is expanded. Coretta Scott King will join her deceased African-American sisters – Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Claudia Jones, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, June Jordan – whose collective struggles against multiple forms of oppression have been so inspiring, so compelling. and as transgressive as those of the most famous icons of the women’s movement.

When we tell the story of radical African-American activism in the 20th century, we can finally embrace Coretta Scott King as the truly revolutionary figure that she was.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Mrs. Become a member today to read more stories like this in print and through our app.

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