We can’t imagine that anyone who saw Coretta Scott King – whether in person or on film or tape – ever forgot her. Not only was she extraordinarily beautiful, she personified the twin strains of courage and profound melancholy that underscore this nation’s seemingly endless struggle to fulfill our founding fathers’ promise of liberty, justice and equality for all. On hearing of her death last Tuesday, the Reverend Al Sharpton said, “She was truly the first lady of the human rights movement. The only thing worse than losing her is if we never had her.” Senator Edward Kennedy said, “Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King awakened the conscience of a nation that began the journey toward equality, knocking down the walls of discrimination based on race, on religion, and on ethnicity. We have all benefited so much from their inspiration and their leadership.”In fact, the Kings worked such a fundamental change in America that it is impossible to imagine now where America would be or what it would be if they had not been here and had not done what they did. There have been three moments in American history when this nation seemed to be on its way to finally keeping its founders’ promise. The most recent moment was the 1960s, but the assassinations of Martin Luther King in April of 1968 and Bobby Kennedy in June of 1968, stopped the human rights movement in its tracks, and hope surrendered to despair. Coretta Scott King did not stop. She had always worked closely with her husband, and, after his murder, she went on working – until she suffered a stroke last year, and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died last Tuesday at the Santa Monica Health Institute in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, which is known for providing alternative treatments for people suffering from incurable diseases. Mexican authorities subsequently shut the clinic down. According to the New York Times, Mrs. King grew up on an Alabama farm. Her father managed to make a “middle class homestead for his family” but their house and, later, her father’s sawmill was torched by people who were apparently disturbed by his success. A good student, Coretta Scott followed her sister to Antioch College in Ohio, where she majored in education and music, and was active in movements to end racial and economic injustice, only to find that schools in the area wouldn’t accept black student teachers. Turning her focus to music, she went on to the New England Conservancy of Music in Boston to study singing. It was there that she met King, who said on their first date that she had everything he wanted in a wife. In a 1967 interview, he said, “I think on many points, she educated me.” In fact, she educated all of us – with her courage under almost constant fire, her dedication and gravity, and her tireless effort to end racism, poverty and war in this country and the world. From her childhood on the farm to her death last week in Rosarita, Coretta Scott King, suffered fires, bombings, the arrests, beatings and murders of friends and allies, the arrests of, attacks on and assassination of her husband, and, through it all, she not only endured, but triumphed. She did not run through this world, or flee from it, she walked through it – slowly, thoughtfully, and looked it in the eye, and while the world she left is by no means perfect, it is a far better world than the one she entered 78 years ago. (see related book review and interview on page 11)
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