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February 2, 2006
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Coretta Scott King’s challenging legacy
When President Bush opened his State of the Union address with a tribute to Coretta Scott King, who had died the previous night at the age of 78, it provoked one of the evening’s few bipartisan standing ovations not associated with praising our men and women in uniform.
The death of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s revered widow, coming so soon after the death of Rosa Parks, reminds us not only of the civil rights giants of the past, but also of the scarcity of such inspiring figures today. With aggressive help from Bush’s GOP, the black churches that nurtured the civil rights movement four and five decades ago are now torn over the issue of gay rights. King’s own daughter Bernice and niece Alveda have lent themselves to the anti-gay crusade, contradicting the family matriarch, who was a strong supporter of gay equality.
But as Taylor Branch reminds us in his recently completed three-volume history of the King era, the civil rights movement was never a model of unity. Reading his accounts of the endless infighting among different movement factions, one realizes that references to “the struggle” were no mere figure of speech. With the passing of Mrs. King, the question is who will carry on the fight to end the internal exile of the gay and lesbian members of the black family. To be sure, pro-gay voices include illustrious civil rights veterans such as John Lewis and Julian Bond; but who will take up the struggle in the next generation? An answer presents itself, which I will discuss shortly.
The tributes to Mrs. King have been plentiful and heartfelt. Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said, “Once in a lifetime God grants us with the ability to witness an extraordinary life dedicated to justice. With Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., God smiled on us and fortunately granted us two.” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman said, “Our community has lost a dear and courageous friend, someone who was there for us when virtually no one else was. From the beginning, Mrs. King understood that homophobia is hate, and hate has no place in the Beloved Community that she and Dr. King envisioned for our nation and our world.”
As a young woman, Coretta Scott had planned a career as a concert singer. When she met Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1952, she was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and he was preparing for a doctorate in theology at Boston University. They were married the following year, and in 1954 moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Between 1955 and 1963 she bore him four children: Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice.
While busy raising children for a husband who was often on the road, Coretta kept a hand in the movement herself with a series of Freedom Concerts that she organized as fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). That organization was founded by Dr. King, Joseph Lowery and others under the tutelage of Bayard Rustin in January 1957, capitalizing on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott which established the young Dr. King as a national figure.
Mrs. King would live twice as long as her murdered husband, who left a timeless legacy of advocacy for human dignity but little money for his young family. Their use of his copyrighted speeches to generate income was criticized in many quarters, but this seems unfair when you consider that King had even donated his Nobel Prize money to the SCLC despite his family’s finances not being secure. Mrs. King’s courage and grace in upholding her late husband’s legacy for nearly four decades, including her establishment of the King Center in Atlanta, gave the nation far more than she received.
Her personal leadership was nowhere more evident than in her consistent support for the rights of gay men and lesbians. Speaking to Lambda Legal Defense in 1998, she said, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.... 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 1998 she said of gay people who had worked in the civil rights movement, “Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.” In 2004, after President Bush endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment, she said, “Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”
Contrast the sterling support from Mrs. King, who knew the cost of groundbreaking advocacy, with the slander from her niece Alveda King, who for years has traveled the country giving speeches denouncing same-sex marriage. In 1997, the Associated Press quoted Alveda as saying, “Don't expect us or our children to approve of, promote, or elevate sexual preference to civil rights status...What’s next, civil rights on the basis of prostitution and pedophilia?” Likewise, King’s own child Bernice joined thousands of people in 2004 for an anti-gay march in Atlanta, where she lit a torch at her father’s grave and handed it to anti-gay Bishop Eddie Long.
Fortunately, as Mrs. King struggled with her final illness, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) picked up the torch for her. At last month’s Black Church Summit in Atlanta, organized by NBJC to challenge homophobia within the black faith community, keynote speaker Rev. Al Sharpton rebuked the Republican right’s courtship of conservative black ministers: “They couldn’t come to black churches to talk about the war, about health care, about poverty. So they did what they always do and reached for the bigotry against gay and lesbian people.”
Quoting Dr. King, Sharpton said, “There are those that are thermometers that read the temperature in the room. And then there are those that are thermostats that change the temperature in the room. I come to tell you to be thermostats. Turn the heat up in the black church. Make these people sweat until we open the doors of dialogue for everybody.”
Dr. Sylvia Rhue, NBJC Director of Religious Affairs and Constituency Development, discussed the aims of the summit. “These high level discussions are about developing specific strategies that will challenge homophobic attitudes in our nation’s black religious institutions-from the seminary to the pulpit. Through enlivened and educated discussions about the lives of black gay families, we hope to bring love and spiritually infused enlightenment to our communities of faith, to help them grapple with issues of sexual orientation and the bible.”
These activists certainly have big shoes to fill. Mrs. King’s unique international stature was best seen in May 1994 when she stood beside Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg as he echoed her husband’s famous words in his victory speech upon his election as president of South Africa: “I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy -- pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, and now the joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops -- Free at last! Free at last!”
But just as Dr. King’s 1963 triumph at the Lincoln Memorial was savagely countered a few weeks later by the bombing murders of four little girls in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church as they prepared for Sunday school, South Africa’s struggles were far from ended when Mandela paused to enjoy that euphoric moment twelve years ago. In his nation as in ours, a new generation is called, in King’s words, to make real the promises of democracy.
As our brothers and sisters in the National Black Justice Coalition resolve to end the long-ingrained habit of “sitting and taking it” week after week from pastors in poison-filled pulpits, we can be sure that Mother Coretta, reunited at last with the better minister who was taken from her and us so long ago, is somewhere smiling.