Another Mother, Gone
While we were all focused on the Senate and its Work of the Devil yesterday, an icon of our culture was quietly taken home.
Mother Coretta Scott King passed yesterday.
It is not an unexpected thing, her time. After all, the stroke she had this summer was massive and, at the age of 78, it is hard to bounce back from that type of thing. But it seems that as much as Mother Parks' passing, Mother King's passing marks the end of an American era, not just the end of a life.
When you read about Coretta Scott King, it seems clear that much of her own personal commitment to justice was blotted out by the all-encompassing shadow of her late husband, Dr. King, and his elevation post-death to cultural icon. She was just The Wife, it seems, in most writings about the time and her husband. But such a narrow vision of Coretta Scott King does her a real disservice, all squabbling and controversy about her stewardship of the King Center and her quest to clear the name of James Earl Ray aside. Another woman would have been broken, two months after being widowed so violently and left with four babies to rear. But Mrs. King was not. Instead, just two months after his death, Coretta Scott King was at the head of the 1968 Poor People's March, technically in the name of her husband, but given the subjects she covered (which included a call for women to take a bigger role in the movement) it was clear that she was speaking in her own right, as her own leader.
Her quiet leadership continued throughout the remainder of her life, usually reported as an afterthought. But I remember her fighting against apartheid, leading sit-ins against the brutality of South Africa, long after Dr. King was gone. I remember her being the fire behind the juggernaut that was Stevie Wonder's campaign for the King Holiday, particularly as it exploded to deal that recalcitrant bastion of racism, Arizona. In her last few years, Mrs. King had become a fierce advocate for the equality of LGBT people, earning the emnity of her own, deluded, daughter, Bernice in the process. Expanding the vision.
But most don't remember these things. Particularly that Coretta Scott King was also a womanist (a label that did not exist when she, like so many Black women, developed feminist sensibilities and advocated that we had played and must play a powerful role in bringing freedom). A fierce proponent of women's education and equality, the person who revered the wisdom of Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man whose sexuality in light of his communism/socialism always gave Dr. King and the official "movement" much pause. A different mind to her husband's, about some things. Perhaps because she knew the sexism of her late husband (a gifted man, but also a womanizer) well, when she began to speak publicly in her own voice one of the first things she did was embrace Black women's power to be the vehicle of change:
Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.
Most folks don't think about these things, when they think about Coretta Scott King. What they remember was a beautiful woman, whether as a young wife standing by her husband, a widow so regal that she took your breath away holding her young daughter next to her at the pew, a women who carried in herself a dignity that most just assumed came from her husband and his legacy.
They assumed wrong.
Thus, Mother King joined a long proud tradition of fearless Black women activists, different stylings of the same power. She joins the likes of Myrlie Evers and Betty Shabazz, who each themselves joined the legacy of the Septima Clarks, Fannie Lou Hamers, Ella Bakers, Diane Bevel Nashs and Angela Davises, who themselves joined the Mary McLeod Bethunes, Ida Wells Barnetts Sojourner Truths and Harriet Tubmans. She joins a tradition of fierce Black heroines who earned their place in history in their own right. Even as they were also the wives or paramours of Black male freedom fighters with different approaches to the mission, and the mothers of the next generations. Mrs. King fought, sometimes loudly, usually quietly, in her own right, even as most folks thought that all a Black woman could be was wife, mother, worker or harridan standing by her man.
Rest in Peace, Mother King. Your passing is the end of an era.