Cities: Columbus

Coretta Scott King Speaks Out on Nonviolence

In this WSB clip, from Saturday September 11, 1971 in Fort Benning, Georgia, Coretta Scott King, widow of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks about the relevance of nonviolence as a means for productive social change. The week previous to the clip was filled with controversy in Columbus about the newly desegregated public schools.  

After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Mrs. King became widely influential. Considered an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, many respected her. Because of that esteem, she was often put in the public eye to remind people of Dr. King’s goals, and to reinforce the changes in society that had occurred in the earlier parts of the movement. As heir and executor of the King legacy, Mrs. King founded The King Center on June 26, 1968. Based in Atlanta, and started in the basement of the King home just more than two months after her husband’s murder, the center was intended to be a multi-purposed endeavor. In addition to serving as a living memorial to her late husband, Mrs. King’s mission was to preserve Dr. King’s ideals, to further his life’s work, and his philosophy of nonviolence for reconciliation and social change. Mrs. King channeled all of her grief resulting from her husband’s assassination to organize the center which would produce and collect books, audio, videocassettes and film to educate others about Dr. King’s teachings. In decades after, The King Center would also be responsible for CDs, web pages and other digital media.

As soon as The King Center opened its doors, Mrs. King began directing her staff to plan for a national observance of Dr. King’s birthday. The initiative called for a nationwide commemoration, educating people on Dr. King’s unfinished work of nonviolent direct action. In the years it took for the legislation calling for a holiday to honor Dr. King, Mrs. King seized every opportunity she could to call attention to his message and his unfinished mission. She helped gather petitions bearing over three million signatures, held press events, as well as used any news opportunities available to her in order to call attention to her cause and that of those seeking social change. In 1986, Congress designated the third Monday in January as the federal holiday known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

During Dr. King’s life, though he always respected his wife’s involvement in the movement, the two sometimes conflicted over how much time she should spend at home raising the family. After his death, Mrs. King was able to dedicate more time to being involved in fighting many different forms of injustice. Although under the surveillance of the FBI from 1968 until 1972, Mrs. King never stopped getting involved. She fought for the rights of women, gays and lesbians, as well as rallied for economic issues and world peace. She participated in sit-ins in Washington D.C. protesting the Vietnam War, spoke against capital punishment, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and invited the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to take part in the viewing of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington. Seriously criticized by some black pastors because they believed she was not following her husband’s conservative ways, Mrs. King is said to have responded by reminding them of Dr. King’s far-reaching indictment that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

At the time of her death in 2006, Mrs. King was widely regarded as a civil rights champion and was a constant reminder of the personal sacrifice that many women made to the movement. With Dr. King’s death, she lost not only a husband but the father of her children. Like widows Myrlie Evers (Medgar Evers) and Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X), Mrs. King was faced with having to bear her personal loss while carrying on a complex legacy. After her death, many began to question the roles these wives played in the movement outside of their marriages. As the study of the movement refocuses on the women who were not only wives but field workers and activists, it becomes more apparent that the struggle for civil rights was not just a black, male battlefield.

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Discussion Questions

1. Listen to the NPR interview of the contents of the FBI's file on Mrs. King. What threat did activists pose to the FBI? Why would the organization increase surveillance on Mrs. King after Dr. King's murder?

2. What do you think Dr. King would have thought about Mrs. King’s increased involvement in the Movement after his death, given their disagreement about her time spend in the Movement during his lifetime?

3. How far do you think issues such as minority rights, gay and lesbian rights, and religious rights have come today? Are rights better, worse, or do they appear to be better but in reality, are not?

4. How did Myrlie Evers and Betty Shabazz respond to the deaths of their husbands, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X? To what extent did they remain active in the Movement? What ideas and projects did they introduce that they conceptualized and developed independent of their husbands? 

                          Take it to the Streets!                                      

The First Lady of the United States has important responsibilities and duties that often are overlooked or ignored. Develop a timeline of First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush, in which you list both their expected duties and the personal projects they championed. What similarities do you find in their accomplishments? How did some or all of them redefine the role? What do you expect when the gender roles are one day reversed, and the President is a married woman?

                                                                                                       Writers: ENGL Students

Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, and Professor Barbara McCaskill

Web Site Designer: William Weems

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