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Social Studies

An Ordinary Woman

By Vincent Williams | Posted 2/8/2006

Coretta Scott King died Jan. 31, and, along with the 2005 passing of Rosa Parks, an era is slowly coming to an end. King was, of course, mostly known as the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but, decades after her husband’s assassination, she continued to be an outspoken activist, humanitarian, and freedom fighter. Over the past few days, dozens of writers have outlined her accomplishments and listed her attributes in a manner much more eloquent than I could manage. However, what impressed me the most about Coretta Scott King’s life and legacy is the simple fact that she didn’t have to do anything.

We Americans adore our mythologies, and one of the latest fables to be added to our collective story is the one of the segregation-era South. When we read those words, those of us who weren’t there instantly conjure images of snapping dogs, screaming racists, burning crosses, bigoted police officers spitting tobacco, fire hoses, and the ever-present colored only signs. All of these images are, of course, historically accurate and need to remain an integral part of our collective consciousness. To borrow some phraseology from another people’s struggle and suffering, we must never forget so that it never happens again.

The thing is, those pictures only tell part of the story. There has always been a sizable black middle class, particularly in the South. The King family was firmly entrenched in that community. In the mid-’50s, Coretta was a college graduate from a “good” family, Martin had completed his Ph.D. and, as the son of one of the most prominent preachers in Atlanta, was poised to have a grand career in the clergy. Am I saying that segregation didn’t affect the day-to-day lives of middle-class blacks? Of course not. But let’s be real here: Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King had more education, more opportunity, and brighter futures in 1956 than most people—black and white—have in 2006.

Regardless of his personal situation, Martin Luther King chose to become involved in the civil rights movement, and the rest, as they say, is history. After leading the successful Montgomery bus boycott, the Rev. King went on to become the leader and most pivotal figure in the modern movement, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and, along with thousands of brave men and women, changing the world. King protested and spoke out and fought, not for personal gain, but because it was the right thing to do. And for his troubles, he was ridiculed, threatened, jailed, and, eventually, shot down like a dog in the street.

Now imagine you’re Coretta Scott King in 1968. You’re not even 40 and you’re widowed with four young children. Your life and the lives of those children have been threatened more times than you can remember. Your home has been bombed. And, while no one wants to talk about it now, many of the black people that your husband died defending had been questioning his relevance and commitment in the weeks before his assassination. Would anyone have faulted her if, at that point, she decided to call it a day and fade into obscurity? But she didn’t. For decades after her husband’s death, Coretta Scott King spoke out against racism and injustice and stood for human rights and fairness. And, again, she didn’t have to.

Like I said, an era is slowly passing before our eyes. There are still a great many folks alive that fought and sacrificed during the civil-rights movement, but the faces that we all learned about in school are slowly fading into history along with the Rev. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and their like.

All three of those men were dead before I was born, so I never got to “know” them as living beings. The only memories I have are the ones from history class and books and grainy black-and-white footage. I never knew the Rev. King as a human. I only know him as an icon. And now we can add Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King to that list for future generations.

On the one hand, I don’t really have a problem with that. I believe in heroes, and I certainly believe that children should have them. George Washington could not tell a lie about a cherry tree, Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees throughout the country, and Martin Luther King had a dream. Still, I find it sad that this deification puts so much distance between our heroes and us; how could I possibly be as heroic as someone like Coretta Scott King? Yes, she was a hero and an icon, but beneath it all, she was an ordinary woman who decided to stand for what was right, not for personal gain, but because it was right. Certainly, we can all do that.

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