Just last week, America honored, eulogized and laid to rest Coretta Scott King. In death as in life, she broke new barriers and drew the respect of an entire nation, becoming the first woman and the first African American to lay in repose in the rotunda of the Georgia Capitol. This honor was denied 37 years ago to her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Four U.S. Presidents, a poet laureate, countless dignitaries and artists extolled Mrs. King's courage and steadfast determination to continue the struggle for peace and racial equality initially first paved by the Rev. King. But it was the 155,000 people of all creeds, colors, races and religions who stood in the cold to pay their final respects to Mrs. King that truly reflected her legacy as the first lady of the civil rights movement.
First, we remember her as a woman whose dignity and strength during one of this nation's darkest hours came to personify the spirit of an entire people and a nonviolent movement. In 1968, the assassination of the Rev. King filled Black America with a sadness and frustration that turned to rage. Many of the nation's cities burned with the anger of injustice, inequity and poverty. Yet, the images of Mrs. King's quiet resolve to carry the mantle of nonviolence, equality and opportunity for every American turned her into an international icon for peace and freedom.
We also remember her days as a pillar of personal strength and support to the Rev. King and mother to four children at home and on the civil rights trail. We recall for the next four decades how she would continue in the struggle against racial injustice, establishing in 1986 a national holiday commemorating the Rev. King's work, creating the King Center in Atlanta and expanding the fight to women's rights, gay rights, religious freedom and, most recently, opposing the war in Iraq.
But we should not be surprised. Her power, intelligence and independence were apparent before, during and after her life with the Rev. King. Coretta Scott King had always been her own woman.
Born on April 27, 1927, she grew up poor in rural Alabama. Her family owned the local country store, but she and her siblings would help financially by picking cotton in the sweltering fields. Upon graduating first in her high school class, she was determined to escape the suffocating segregation of the South and left to study classical music and education at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Author Taylor Branch recounted in the King biography "Parting of the Waters" that Coretta Scott's first encounter with the Rev. King was not very auspicious. In fact, she later would deliberate for six months on his proposal of marriage before agreeing to become his wife. Prior to her wedding in 1953, Coretta stunned the Rev. King's father, a prominent Atlanta minister who would preside over the nuptials by demanding that the traditional promise to " obey her husband" be removed from the wedding vows. The Rev. King's father reluctantly obliged.
By 1955, she would be catapulted into destiny with the Rev. King as he was enlisted to lead the Montgomery Bus boycott. In a civil rights movement was dominated by men, Mrs. King was often seen hand-in-hand with her husband at protest marches.
But she wanted to play a more active role in the movement, despite the Rev. King's objections. In a 1967 interview the Rev. King stated, "I wish I could say … that I led her down this path, but I must say we went down together, because she was as actively involved and concerned when we met as she is now."
Mrs. King ultimately found her own voice upon the Rev. King's death in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial in June 1968. Mrs. King called upon American women "to unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war."
Coretta Scott King's life remained one of purpose and service. She led an extraordinary life over the course of extraordinary times. She will be remembered as one of America's greatest gifts.
Marc H. Morial is president of the National Urban League.