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Remembering Coretta Scott King

2/4/2017, 3:22 p.m.
Coretta Scott King died on Jan. 30, 2006. Yet her legacy is very much alive as a coalition builder, a ...
Barbara A. Reynolds

Barbara A. Reynolds

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, 1960s civil rights leaders used to refer to a Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, a divine dimension that summons leaders exactly when needed most. That certainly describes the timing of Mrs. King, as people take a fresh look at those who successfully moved people forward through the heavy thicket of discrimination such as the leading ladies in the wonderful new film, “Hidden Figures.”

A second look at Mrs. King’s legacy should focus on but go beyond her well known decades- long ordeal of successfully lobbying to make her husband’s birthday a national holiday and building the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta. Tourists from around the world visit this site, where her crypt and that of Dr. King are located.

Mrs. King certainly should come to mind as millions gathered in Washington on Jan. 21, and in sister cities around the world, to mount an overwhelming rebuke to President 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 the protest.

It is appropriate that we remember her appeal to women and her global human rights efforts. That was the capstone of Mrs. King’s 38-year mission 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 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 a 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 various women’s groups at the conference that 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,” she said.

Mrs. King believed citizen action is crucial to the making of a president. She often said that President Ronald Reagan did not warm to the idea of a Dr. King holiday until the movement created a groundswell for it with 3 million signatures, marches and years of lobbying Congress. He signed it on Nov. 20, 1983.

In past years, Mrs. King’s influence was mammoth in shaping the political landscape. She successfully campaigned to elect scores of liberals to political office, worked with President Carter in the selection of federal judges and opposed those who stood in the way of voting rights.