In a Rose Garden ceremony that was held on November 2, 1983, Coretta Scott King, widow of the famed civil rights leader, was present (along with other dignitaries) to witness the signing into law by President Ronald Reagan of a bill that would create a Federal holiday in honor of the life and work of her late husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. It would be officially observed for the first time on January 20, 1986 and the holiday became known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed a proclamation designating that the holiday be observed annually on the third Monday of January. It has been celebrated in all fifty states in the Union since 2000, when Arizona, New Hampshire and Utah became the last three states to officially recognize this day. So, this year, the Federal holiday falls on Monday, January 18.
It is necessary and appropriate on this day to remember the goals and aspirations of a Christian minister who sought to bridge the divide between two races in one country, a task that is never ending. He died because of blind hatred and unreasoning fears and resentments, and the circumstances that he had to live under did not deter him from reaching out to others in the hope of creating a better society for all peoples. Yet, while we remember a man who is a part of our history, we should not forget the woman who accompanied him on that journey for equality and justice—she was just as important as he was in those marches, demonstrations and speeches. Like another woman in another time—Abigail Adams—Coretta Scott King stood beside her husband and supported him in his revolutionary work and like Abigail Adams, she made sure that the contributions she made would not be forgotten or taken for granted. They—and other women like them—paid proof to the saying that “behind every great man stood a great (or greater) woman.” Without that love and support—not to mention the great worry—they had for their spouses, the “great men” who walked astride the stage of history could not have done so without the women who, like those women from colonial days, pledged “their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” alongside them.
So it was with Coretta Scott King. Much had happened in the life of Coretta Scott King before that moment at the White House when she saw a President of the United States declare a holiday in honor of a civil rights leader who happened to be her husband. Her life—like her husband’s—mirrored the history of a people in a land who have always struggled for racial justice and equality while maintaining the dignity that God had bestowed on them and which other people, though different from them, denied them (often brutally) what was promised in the nation’s founding documents. They, like many others before them, pressed on with the faith that only their God-given dignity could provide them—and that fact may be the most amazing thing about a people who originally were brought to this country against their will and who eventually made their way to show that justice and dignity belongs not just to one race, but to all.
As she stood there in the Rose Garden of the White House that day, did Coretta Scott King think it was but a dream? Did it have a sense of unreality to it all? Did she wonder how much times have changed since that day along the Mall by the Lincoln Memorial when her husband dared to have a “dream” way back on that August day in 1963? Did she wonder what her husband would have thought about her being present at such a historic—yet deeply personal—moment when his life was to be officially recognized, that a dream of another kind had just occurred? Did she think about how her paternal great-grandmother, Delia Scott, who midwifed her birth, was a former slave? Did she think about her dreams about becoming a classical singer while attending (on a scholarship) the New England Conservatory in Boston and how that all changed when she met an aspiring Christian minister? Did she think about all the sacrifices that she had to make when she married the man who became Martin Luther King and one who aspired to achieve great things? Did she remember the worry and the fear she had to endure—and all that it took—in order to support her husband’s dreams? Did she think about that Nobel Peace Prize her husband was awarded in 1964? Did she wonder about her husband’s last moments and what he wished his life would mean? Did she wonder how she did it all, raising a family of young children without the love of their father? And did she wonder how she managed it all by herself?
It took a great deal of faith and even greater courage to live life in those times. It is still harder to imagine now in this day and age how people who simply asserted their natural right to dignity and freedom were treated so badly and unjustly back then. Sadly, such behavior has not been totally eradicated, despite the advancements since the civil rights years. When she stood on that White House lawn that day, did she think that the time was coming when an African-American man would one day sit in an Oval Office in a mansion that was had been built and once staffed by former slaves? Could she envision it, given the strides that had been made in her lifetime?
She never gave up, but all those years of perseverance had taken its toll on them both, Martin and Coretta King. After Martin Luther King was killed on that balcony in Memphis in 1968, his autopsy revealed that he had the heart of a 60-year-old—and he was only 39. She had worried for his safety and for the future of civil rights. Yet she continued her husband’s work and raised her family. She continued to struggle for justice and dignity until she was no longer able to physically able to do so; after a number of small strokes, a minor heart attack and ovarian cancer, she died on January 30, 2006 at the age of 78. She would be buried next to her husband at the King Center in Atlanta. They lie side by side, husband and wife, “drum majors” for justice. They lived for a dream, spoke for it, and lived it. Dignity, equality, justice—those are not bad dreams to have, and they are good dreams to bequeath, and it took another King to leave that legacy.