Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Coretta Scott King's Importance to American History

There are right-wing bloggers out there who are so invested in hostility for progressive U.S. social movements that they cannot find anything to admire even in someone like Coretta Scott King, who died last night at the age of 78.

...She was a revered figure -- as Juan Williams put it on NPR, the "queen" of the civil rights movement -- solely for the fact that she was Dr. King's widow. She has spent the last several decades doggedly fighting against any attempt to portray King as anything but a Christ-like figure and has succeeded in elevating him to iconic status beyond his actual role in gaining equality for black Americans.
She made a good life for herself off of copyright wealth, stifling history, which can't have hurt the effort to redirect said history.

Mean-spirited, sure. But also, and more to the point, extraordinarily ignorant.

Coretta Scott King had no interest in portraying her husband as a "Christ-like figure." She did dedicate her life after MLK's assassination to keeping alive the movement for nonviolent political change that Dr. King and many others had used so effectively to end Jim Crow and gain equal rights for African-Americans. She did this, not through words or her physical presence alone, but through the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which she founded in 1969. The King Center's historical collections and community service programs have done a lot more to educate the world about Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, and nonviolent social change than the Bush administration has done to educate the world about the possibilities of creating political change without resorting to terrorism.

Coretta Scott King was not about promoting a distorted image of her husband so people would remember him as a saint. She wanted to help people understand what MLK wanted people to understand about struggling against injustice without committing injustice; and beyond that, she wanted to continue that struggle. In doing that, CSK reached beyond her own people to support freedom in other social contexts and to struggle against injustice as it affected other groups in society, not necessarily just black Americans.

Pam Spaulding makes this point quite eloquently:

This loss is so great because Mrs. King was an advocate for civil rights who believed that phrase was inclusive -- those of us in the LGBT family knew that she was on our side. While other figures in the civil rights movement, including Coretta's daughter Bernice, have chosen exclusion, demonization, and marginalization of gays and lesbians, Coretta Scott King stood regally and spoke eloquently about why discrimination of any kind is wrong.

King demonstrated her commitment to opposing discrimination and injustice no matter who the target was when she spoke at a conference, organized by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce and held soon after the last presidential election:

I think we all need a few days to recuperate from the stress-filled election we have just experienced, but not much more, because we have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination.

I say "common struggle" because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.

My husband, Martin Luther King Jr., once said, "We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny ... an inescapable network of mutuality. ... I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be." Therefore, I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.

In addition to this fundamental moral principle, there is a very practical reason why people involved in human rights should support each other and work together. And that reason is that the whole of us united makes us stronger than the sum of our parts. This principle of synergy is eloquently summed up in the equation "One plus one equals three." In other words, there are things we achieve together that we can't achieve separately.

Coretta Scott King was living proof that a woman could survive the violent death of her husband, raise four small children on her own, and have a meaningful professional life. She was instrumental in getting federal legislation passed that created Martin Luther King, Jr., day as a federal holiday. James Joyner is simply and unarguably, flat-out wrong when he writes that "...Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, and dozens of other figures were more significant in their impact on American history than MLK." Obviously, the men who founded this nation had tremendous influence on American history -- although not unalloyedly for the good, given the consequences of the decision to keep slavery. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was just as important in his influence on American history in the second half of the 20th century. He galvanized the civil rights movement, which led to a wave of legislation that freed African-Americans, especially in the South, from a century of legal segregation, unequal education, and outright terrorism. It didn't happen all at once, and it did not end racial injustice, but few would argue that life for Southern blacks 40 years after the civil rights movement is not vastly better than it was 40 years before the civil rights movement.

Also, the principles of nonviolent resistance to evil informed and inspired at least half a dozen social movements that came later: the struggles for abortion and other reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights, the environmental movement, animal rights, and the peace movement, for starters.

King did not originate the idea that evil could be defeated through nonviolent resistance; he developed it over years of studying the philosophies of Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hegel, and Jesus as expressed in his Sermon on the Mount. And in turn, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, vision inspired human rights movements all over the world, from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa to the anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in Poland. Here's a commentary on the far-reaching influence of just one of King's many writings, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail":

As an eternal statement that resonates hope in the valleys of despair, "Letter From Birmingham City Jail" is unrivaled, an American document as distinctive as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation.

I'd say that the commitment Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, life partner made, after he died, to continue his work and honor his vision, and her very tangible accomplishments in that effort, are ample reason for the respect, love, and admiration Coretta Scott King has earned in her own right -- quite apart from her status as MLK's widow.

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