The Guiding Hand of Coretta Scott King

April 30, 2018

CorettaScott_fa.jpgCoretta Scott King, the wife and fellow activist of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also occupies a place of honor in 1199’s history.

In 1969, less than a year after Dr. King’s assassination, 1199 embarked on a nationwide organizing campaign, of which Mrs. King enthusiastically agreed to serve as honorary chair. Her stirring oratory, media appearances and powerful presence at meetings and picket lines emboldened and energized workers.

The spotlight in the national campaign was focused on Charleston, South Carolina, a bastion of conservatism and racism. Mrs. King’s leadership lifted the spirits of the poor African American women at two Charleston hospitals during a 100-day strike. During the campaign, waged under the slogan, “Union Power, Soul Power,” Mrs. King declared at a church meeting:

“One thing that hospital workers, black, white or brown, have in common all over the country is that they are poor, they are terribly exploited, and they need a union more than anybody else. That is why I’m with you. And you can count on me to stay with you in your fight for justice, for human rights and for dignity.” The union was unable to win full recognition in Charleston but it did manage to improve conditions for the workers and eventually won representation elections in a dozen cities throughout the nation.

And as her husband did before her, Coretta Scott King answered the call whenever 1199 needed her assistance, lending her prestige to organizing campaigns and supporting major Union initiatives. Meanwhile, Mrs. King also carried on the work she had engaged in with her late husband. She helped establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which advances Dr. King’s legacy. She also was the driving force behind the national King Holiday, which was signed into law in 1983.

Coretta Scott King’s activism – in response to the oppressive Jim Crow conditions of her youth – predated her marriage. She observed that she was married to the movement before she married Dr. King. She recalled picking cotton with family members to help pay for her and her siblings’ public-school education. The death threats she received as an adult were preceded by threats against her dad in Hieberger, Alabama, where both the Scott’s home and lumber business were burnt to the ground by racists who were never brought to justice. Another painful memory was the lynching of a great uncle.

Dr. King acknowledged that his wife bore the bulk of household activities and the rearing of the couple’s four children, but he also depended on his wife’s counsel. It was she who convinced him that he should accept the assistance of Malcolm X, after Dr. King’s 1965 arrest in Selma, Alabama. Unfortunately, the alliance never materialized as Malcolm X was assassinated just a few weeks later.

Mrs. King identified as a feminist and was a staunch opponent of homophobia. She frequently spoke about the connections between different forms of women’s oppression before the term “intersectionality” was popularized by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. She said in 1973, “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe you must become its soul.”

Mrs. King personified the soul of our Union.