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Coretta Scott King’s Memoirist: She Knew the People Sessions Prosecuted for Voting Rights Activism

Web ExclusiveFebruary 10, 2017
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We continue our interview with Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Reynolds, who worked with Coretta Scott King on her memoir, about how King opposed Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship because of his prosecution of voting rights activists.

Watch Part 1: 'Made Me Feel We Were Back in 1950s'–Coretta Scott King Memoirist on Silencing of Elizabeth Warren

Read: Coretta Scott King: My Life, My Love, My Legacy

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StoryFeb 09, 2017“Made Me Feel We Were Back in 1950s” Coretta Scott King Memoirist on Silencing of Elizabeth Warren
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of a conversation with the biographer of Coretta Scott King, Reverend Dr. Barbara Reynolds. Her book is called Coretta Scott King: My Life, My Love, My Legacy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Senate has confirmed Jeff Sessions as the United States attorney general after a 52-to-47 vote Wednesday evening. Sessions’ confirmation has faced widespread protests over his opposition to the Voting Rights Act and his history of making racist comments. The vote capped a contentious 24 hours. On Tuesday night, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced and rebuked by the Senate for reading a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King denouncing Sessions, who was at the time being considered for a federal judgeship. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked his thoughts about Coretta Scott King’s letter.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Obviously, we have a lot of respect for her and the sacrifices that she made, and the sacrifices that, frankly, she endured in her life. But I would respectfully disagree with her assessment of Senator Sessions then and now. His record on civil and voting rights, I think, is outstanding. And like Arlen Specter, the late Arlen Specter, I can only hope that if she was still with us today, that after getting to know him and to see his record and his commitment to voting and civil rights, that she would share the same view that Senator Specter did, where he said, “Although I voted against him, getting to know the man that is now, I regret that vote.” And I would hope that if she was still with us today, that she would share that sentiment.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Reynolds, what do you think? You knew Coretta Scott King very well. She wrote this letter that Dr.—that Senator Warren attempted to read into the Congressional Record opposing Sessions 30 years ago, when he was going for a federal judgeship. Would she support Jeff Sessions today for attorney general?

REV. BARBARA REYNOLDS: Of course not. The question is: Does a leopard change its spots? No, she would not support him. And it would not be out of malice. And she probably wouldn’t want this move politicized like it is. She probably would want to meet with Trump, because she was a coalition builder. But she would have to state the facts of how the place that she was born in, this—she knew the people that Sessions prosecuted: Evelyn Turner, her husband and another friend. And they were people who were voting rights activists. And, you see, from her perspective, she had seen people die for the right to vote. She had seen people being beaten in Selma. She had lived this terrible life of having no power. And this man, Sessions, had to know this, too, because they were from the same surroundings. And at one point, he said he didn’t think any voting rights or anything was wrong in Shelby County. Now, you have to understand, Birmingham is in Shelby County. And this is, of course, where you had the four black children blown up in the basement of a church. And voting rights was the whole campaign that was revolving around this period that Sessions was trying to be a federal judge. The first civil rights voting rights martyr was a man named Jimmie Lee Jackson, and he was—he was killed. And he was from Marion, Alabama. And Coretta knew his family. She knew him. And so, she brought in a personal history of how it is to live without the power to vote. And she certainly would not vote for Sessions. This is—I cannot see—I’ve known her for 30 years, and I cannot see how this life, that was made so miserable for her and thousands who did not even have the voice to speak up, as she—she was speaking up for thousands, not just for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the Marion Three, the group that she wrote a letter about why she opposed Jeff Sessions, who President Reagan had nominated to be a federal judge. And almost every nomination went through the Senate Judiciary Committee and was approved. He was only two in like the previous half-century that ultimately didn’t get approved, and maybe part of that was because of Coretta Scott King’s letter and her testimony. This group of three, including Albert and Evelyn Turner—Albert would hold the coffin of Dr. Martin Luther King, very close—and Jeff Sessions, as U.S. attorney in Alabama, his prosecution of them around voting rights, can you talk about this?

REV. BARBARA REYNOLDS: Yes. What they were trying to do was to register blacks to vote. Now, this seems like just a minor thing, but you have to understand that some people were beaten. Some people were thrown off their land. People like Jimmie Lee Jackson and others even lost their life. This was a covenant that was signed through blood. And so, this is how we move from her—the part of growing up in Marion, Alabama, where they had no rights. Then we had the 1965 Voting Rights Act, so things began to change.

So, now, instead of Sessions seeing that this bloody history was now getting better because at least blacks could have representation, he worked against the people who was trying to advance the cause, by prosecuting these voting rights activists, who even the Republicans in Congress said that it was not right, and it was thrown out by the courts in Alabama. So, I mean, you can see that Sessions just did not stop with Marion, Alabama. I mean, he had said, it was reported, when—that the KKK wasn’t anything to worry about, but he didn’t like the fact that they smoke marijuana. That has been reported. And it was reported that he didn’t see that there were voting rights and civil rights charges in Alabama, and he’s right there in the middle of it.

And so, people—we should not have to fear our government. And when you looked at how Senator Warren and Coretta King were shut out, it just reminded me of what could happen when the rights that we want to respect are also shut out. People are worried about how—the civil rights of people, of especially black men, who have been shot down—and they were unarmed—by police. The Obama administration went and investigated and held police departments accountable. And, of course, no one’s saying that we should not protect police. I’m not—I’m sure that no one is saying that. But we don’t want a law-and-order department that will act like Bull Connor and will act like the police that beat the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that we fear our government, and that should not be the way we look at our future in 2017.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to Evelyn Turner, the last surviving member of the so-called Marion Three, the activists that Jeff Sessions prosecuted as U.S. attorney. This is Turner speaking to The Washington Post about the case.

EVELYN TURNER: And he said, “Well, you’ve got to learn—at your age, you’ve got to learn to forgive and forget.” I said, “I might forgive him, but I’ll never, as long as I live, will not forget Jeff Sessions.” It was a trumped-up job. That’s what it was, a way of trying to scare blacks from registering to vote. That’s all it was. But they came out in full numbers, and we got blacks in office now that we wouldn’t have had, had it not been for the vote fraud trial. We don’t have to beg nobody to go to the poll now. They go.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to Coretta Scott King in her own words. Here she talks about her own place in the civil rights movement, in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.

CORETTA SCOTT KING: You have an inner peace and a satisfaction, if you feel that you are doing the right thing and doing what God intends for you to do, because I remember after the house was bombed, and I had to—because my parents were pulling me and trying to pull me away, and his parents were trying to pull him away. And I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. But, you know, I had to be polite about it. But I had to—I had to come to, you know, a peace within myself that I am not going to go anywhere. I’m going to be right here, because this is what—this is right, what we’re called to do. And then I started thinking back over the path that I had—that had led me there, from my home training, the threats from my father. And I thought, “Gosh, my father was threatened in his early years—in my early years.” And, you know, it’s like maybe I was subconsciously being prepared then, because I—you know, I was fearful for my father. And then I thought about the path to Antioch College and my preparation, and then to Montgomery now. And here I am. And I—all of a sudden, when Martin said, “We’re going to Montgomery. That’s where I want to start my ministry,” and I wondered why, and then I said, “Now I know why.” This exciting movement. And this is part of God’s plan, and this is what we are supposed to be doing. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Coretta Scott King. She died in 2006. Dr. Reynolds, you worked very closely with her. Could you talk about how you got to know her and what it was like working on this memoir together?

REV. BARBARA REYNOLDS: Well, I got to know her in 1976, when the Chicago Tribune assigned me to work with her. And when I met her, I was so impressed about her courage, because, just as the clip showed, she talked about how her home was bombed in Montgomery, Alabama. There had been threats every day for them to stop the Montgomery bus boycott. All they wanted was to be able to sit in the front of the bus like every other person. But that brought on fiery rebukes and threats. And when she was in the house, she had her little baby with her. And they blew—a bomb hit the front porch, a firebomb. It blew up the front porch. And the next day, Dr. King Sr. came and told Coretta, “I’m going to take you out of here. You can’t stay here. I’ll take you to Atlanta.” And she said that—she knew who she was then. She said, “I’m married to the man I love. But I’m also married to the movement that I love.”

Her courage. Because I had been in the civil rights movement. I had gone to Brownsville, Tennessee, to work in voter registration when I was in college. And we were chased by a group that they said was the Klan. We was running so fast, we didn’t know who it was. But we were chased. There was a roadblock set up on us. And I was so frightened, I never wanted to go south again. But to be with a woman who was still being threatened, even after her husband died—the hate was so bad that somebody even fired into the crypt where Dr. King was buried. They were shooting, using the crypt for target practice. I got to tell you about how bad it was. And so, to see the courage she had to go through threats that continued every—you know, most of her life, and then try to create a climate so her children would not live in fear and could lead a normal life.

But I want to add this, because when I talked about we should not fear our government, that was Barbara. Coretta King was not a fearful person. Coretta King was a faithful person, a person who would organize. So, right now, if she was here now, and she’s seeing the Women’s March, where millions of women and others and men came out to march against some of the suppressive practices that are now unveiling, she would be leading that, because she was a coalition builder. She would have talked to Trump. She would have tried to set up a win-win situation. She would have tried to break through some of these incriminations that are so hostile, because she was not a hostile person. She was very, very calm. She would say to me all the time, “Barbara, I am calmer in crisis. I know who I am. I know that we will win, because we have God on our side.” And this is what we’re going through now today. She’s been through it before. She’s been through Bull Connor. She’s been through Jim Clark. This is nothing new to a Coretta King. She would just organize and try to convince this administration to be fair and to be just, then have a plan, a strategy of nonviolent protests and demonstrations.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you, Reverend Dr. Barbara Reynolds, have been, to say the least, a longtime movement organizer and leader. Your feelings today in the Trump era?

REV. BARBARA REYNOLDS: Well, I’m just—my personal feelings, I just never thought we’d have to go back over what we thought we already had won. But Mrs. King did say that. She said, in every generation, you have to define and fight for freedom as it relates to your current age. So I feel hopeless in one—hopeless when I look at the situation, but then my faith tells me that we can still win. We’re going to protest. We’re going to have to stand up. We’re going to have to fight against all these isms—the anti-immigration move, the anti-female move, the anti-black. We’re going to have to turn these negatives into positives. And I think we have the leadership to do it, if we don’t get afraid, intimidated. But protest works. Demonstration works. Prayer works. And in the end, we will win, because we can’t go back to where we’ve been.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much for joining us. Reverend Dr. Barbara A. Reynolds worked with Coretta Scott King on her memoir, Coretta Scott King: My Life, My Love, My Legacy. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been an honor.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation with Dr. Reynolds, go to democracynow.org. Thanks for joining us.

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“Made Me Feel We Were Back in 1950s” Coretta Scott King Memoirist on Silencing of Elizabeth Warren

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