Coretta Scott King died on Jan. 30, 2006. Yet her legacy is very much alive as a coalition builder, a strategist and a moral voice that confronted detractors but insisted upon nonviolent approaches, such as dialogue, protests and economic boycotts with the end goal of peaceful reconciliation.
In their own analysis, ’60s-era civil rights leaders used to refer to a zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times, in which a divine dimension summons leaders exactly when needed most. That certainly describes the timing of human rights activist Coretta Scott King, who is experiencing a resurgence as people take a fresh look at those who successfully moved themselves and others forward through the heavy thicket of discrimination, such as the leading ladies in the wonderful new film “Hidden Figures.”
A second look at King’s legacy shouldn’t be limited to her decades-long lobbying to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday or building the Dr. Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, which is visited by tourists from around the world. It is appropriate that we remember her appeal to women and her global human rights efforts, which was the capstone of her 38-year mission.
Coretta King certainly should come to mind as millions gathered in Washington and around the world last week to mount an overwhelming rebuke to President Donald Trump’s anti-human rights campaign and his denigration of women, minorities, immigrants and the physically challenged. Her name was scrawled on homemade signs scattered throughout.
As she shifted from civil rights to a more global inclusive human rights agenda after the assassination of her husband in 1968, a favorite slogan of hers was: “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.”
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her a nonvoting delegate to the 32nd General Assembly of the United Nations, where she advocated for more international focus on the human rights of women. That same year in Houston, she served as Commissioner on the International Women’s Year Conference where she created quite a stir over her support for gay rights, an unpopular issue at the time.
In her memoir, she tells how she opposed the various women’s groups at the Conference who were advocating a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage: “I feel that gay and lesbian people have families and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union. I believe unequivocally that discrimination because of sexual orientation is wrong and unacceptable in a democracy that protects the human rights of all its citizens.”
In the historic 1963 March on Washington — which catapulted Dr. King to fame — women were not allowed to march with the leaders or give a major address. But without a doubt, King would have played a supportive role in last month’s Women’s march, as did her daughter, Bernice King.
King was a spokeswoman for social justice causes, both large and small, writing a syndicated news column on issues from gun violence and environmental racism to apartheid in South Africa. She was rarely missing in action.
“Sometimes you win just by showing up,” she said, often referring to her role as a ministry of presence.
King believed that it is citizen action that is crucial to the making of a president. She often said that Ronald Reagan did not warm to the idea of a Dr. King holiday until the movement created a groundswell for it with three million signatures, marches and years of lobbying Congress. He signed it on Nov. 20, 1983.
In recent weeks several black leaders have been publicly scourged for meeting with President Trump through his transition stage. King, however, would have been knocking on his door, as she did with all the other presidents in her heyday. And she would not have been there for photo ops or “selfies.” As a seasoned coalition building she would have prepared a well-crafted agenda, which called upon Trump to govern as president of all Americans.
In past years, King’s influence was mammoth in the shaping of the political landscape. She successfully campaigned to elect scores of liberals to political office, worked with Carter in the selection of federal judges and threw her weight against those who stood in the way of voting rights.
Typical of her role is how she confronted and helped block Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, who in 1985 was vying for a federal judgeship. Sessions, who was called “brilliant” by Trump, is the president’s choice for U.S. attorney general. In a recently surfaced 10-page letter from King to the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, she said Sessions was “lacking in judgment and temperament” and “would irreparably harm the work the movement had done to seize a slice of democracy for disenfranchised blacks.”
King opposed Sessions for his 1985 attempt to prosecute three civil rights activists from Marion, Alabama, for voter fraud — accusations that were later proved unmerited. Her opposition to Sessions ran deep because she grew up right outside of Marion, where residents were unable to counter terrorizing attacks on their lives and property until the movement launched its successful voter-rights drive. Civil rights activists fear that Sessions will not hold law enforcement officials accountable for the episodic incidents of unarmed black men being murdered, as was done under the Obama administration.
In the battle to stop Sessions and others who seemed primed to push back advances in human rights, Coretta would not have panicked. In her memoir, she said, “Struggle is a never-ending process and freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
And so it goes.
Reynolds is the author of seven books, including “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” a firsthand account of Coretta Scott King’s life story. She can be reached at Reynew@aol.com.