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Civil Rights Icon Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006

StoryJanuary 31, 2006
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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Herb Boyd reflect on the legacy of freedom fighter Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. [includes rush transcript]

Civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., has died at the age of 79 in Georgia. She had spent her life fighting for civil rights and preserving her late husband’s legacy.

In April of 1968 Coretta Scott King led a march through Memphis just days after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Later that year she led the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. She continued working for equality, peace and economic justice for the remainder of her life, both in the United States and abroad.

  • Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a close friend of the King family.
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader. He is the founder of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, a progressive organization fighting for social change.
  • Herb Boyd, activist and author, writer for the Amsterdam News and author of many books including “We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement As It Happened”.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re now joined by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Welcome to Democracy Now!

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Thank you, sir.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On this sad day for many people across America — for all Americans, your thoughts, Reverend Lowery.

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, it is sad, although we knew that she had not really recovered from the stroke and the heart attack that she had some months ago. My wife Evelyn and I went to visit her about a month ago, about three weeks ago, where she lived out on Peachtree, and she made a special effort to walk down the hall by herself with a walking cane to help her to the living room, where we were seated waiting on her. And she just smiled triumphantly as she made it to the living room and sat down. But we could tell she was almost totally exhausted from that little short jaunt down the hall. And she couldn’t talk. And she was not really recovering well from the effects of the stroke and the heart attack. So it’s a sad day, but not totally unexpected. But at least she now is free of suffering, and her memory will be with us for generations to come.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about her importance, in terms of carrying on the legacy of Dr. King after his assassination? Could you talk a little bit about her role in the Civil Rights Movement after her husband’s death?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, I think she did a great job. She was a very strong woman. And she not only carried on his legacy through the center, but she carried on his love for his children and she raised those children, four children, which was a monumental task itself. But she held on to the commitments of nonviolence. She continued to be committed to world peace and social justice. And she became a symbol herself, because she was Martin’s widow. She became a symbol of what he stood for and what S.C.L.C. stood for and fought for, and she supported those who were leading the day-to-day operations of movements, and she brought that symbolism with her and was a powerful presence at a march or at a conference, where one was wrestling with the problems of the struggle. So she was a great symbol and, in her own right, a leader. But at the same time, she represented the legacy and carried the symbolism of the presence of Martin Luther King with her in her life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined on the telephone by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, here joining us also. Reverend Jackson, welcome to Democracy Now!

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Good morning.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your thoughts on hearing of the passing of Coretta Scott King?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, you know, she had been quite ill for some few months now. But now, thinking of Mrs. King, first of all, she was a freedom fighter. Of all the attributes given to her today, she marched with her husband in Montgomery despite racist Jim Crow laws. Their home was bombed. She kept marching. She marched in Birmingham to end the denial of access to public accommodations. She marched for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama. She marched for open housing in Chicago. She marched against senseless war. She was a freedom fighter in the Winnie Mandela tradition, but also one of great enduring strength.

She knew every time her husband left home, he might not come back. She had to be companion and wife and protector of their children, so that when he was bricked or stabbed or shot, she had to absorb those blows. I remember so well that when Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, I called her at that bedside phone, and I tried to cushion the blow by saying he had just been shot. I didn’t say he had been killed at that moment. Phone began to ring, and from that position, she, with great dignity and strength of mind, organized that global funeral, led the march in Memphis to continue the struggle for Poor People’s Campaign, built the King Center, helped to organize the King holiday that we all now celebrate, and so hers was an enduring voice for freedom, with great dignity — and I will always say she fought fate, which she couldn’t control with faith, which was her own very strong faith.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And finally, we have Herb Boyd, also a writer for the Amsterdam News and author of many books, including We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement As It Happened. Herb Boyd, welcome to Democracy Now! And your thoughts on the news of Coretta Scott King’s passing?

HERB BOYD: Thank you, Juan. And I can only echo what Reverend Lowery and Reverend Jackson have said. I can also add that in her own right, she was a stalwart. And as Reverend Jackson knows, I mean, she was just a formidable freedom fighter, certainly in the tradition of Winnie Mandela. And I think that’s a very striking similarity. She also was a fundraiser, and I think Reverend Lowery can speak to that for the S.C.L.C. I mean, she put aside her career, Juan, as a — she could have been like an outstanding singer, vocalist. She was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music when she met Dr. King. And she said, I guess at that point, she says, 'Hey, look here, what he's all about is far more significant, far more important than what I’m doing.’ And she just set aside a very promising career as a vocalist.

In her book, you know, Juan, she — My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., she said, “We must be concerned about others, as well as ourselves. We cannot just focus on our own problems. We must study the cultures and languages of the whole world. We need to study the history of other people who are different from ourselves, those who are outside our borders, as well as those who are inside. Martin used to say we’re all tied together in an inescapable network of mutuality; what affects one directly affects all indirectly.” She carried on his tradition in so many ways.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Reverend Lowery, I’d like to ask you about the King Center. There’s been some controversy in recent years about it. Is your hope and expectation that it will continue to exist and flourish in Atlanta? Reverend Lowery? I guess we lost him. Reverend Jackson?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Yes. You know, I think that we were in the freedom movement going through the everyday struggles and pain like any other family. We’d go through [inaudible] but somehow [inaudible] we fall down, we get back up again. The Center will endure. And our struggles endure. All we can do on our space and time is run for — she ran a very strong [inaudible], and ran them with winning speed. And she leaves for us a legacy, a legacy secure as a freedom fighter. Her work is unfinished, and that’s for us to do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Joseph Lowery, and Herb Boyd for their thoughts on the passing of Coretta Scott King.

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