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Coretta Scott King: A multidimensional activist

Monday marked the 37th year the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been celebrated as a national holiday. Dr. King’s commitment to overarching equality initiated a monumental fight towards racial justice that will never be forgotten. As an activist that fought to end all forms of oppression, MLK’s work has extended far beyond the Civil Rights Movement and continues to serve as a reminder that change is possible. When reflecting on the important work of MLK, it is important to remember all the important activists that were involved in this historic movement. One of the most notable activists whose work is often overlooked is Coretta Scott King: the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. However, Coretta Scott King was far more than the wife of MLK, she was a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement who expanded Dr. King’s legacy after his death and continuously campaigned for global social justice. On this holiday, it is essential that we remember both the important work of Martin Luther King Jr. along with the profound leadership role Coretta Scott King played in working toward equality in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.

As detailed in an article in The Atlantic, Coretta Scott King’s activism began far before the Civil Rights Movement. She was more involved in politics than Dr. King when they first met, her activism started with her involvement in the NAACP and other race-based organizations at Antioch College in Ohio. Fifteen months after their marriage they moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Scott King played an essential role in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and continued her important work even when the King’s house was bombed eight weeks into the 381 day boycott.

However, Coretta Scott King was not the only woman who played an influential role in the boycott. As Scott King said, “women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” The Women’s Political Council initiated the boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus, groups of black women conducted food sales to raise money for the carpools that allowed the protests to carry on and another group of women signed plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that prompted the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate city buses. These women made their aspirations to create radical change a reality. While Coretta Scott King is known by many as the supportive wife to Dr. King, in reality, her activism not only influenced King’s work but aimed to end all oppression.

After King received the Nobel Peace Prize, Coretta Scott King emphasized the important role they must play in pursuing world peace, starting with publicly opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam — an action that King was hesitant to take at first as he feared criticism. Evidently, when King was asked if he had educated his wife about anti-war issues, King said, “she educated me.” Even after King’s death, Scott King’s activism did not slow down. She addressed 50,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial about racism, poverty and the Vietnam War. Additionally, she expanded her work towards advocating for welfare programs, abolishing apartheid in South Africa and fighting for gay rights and same sex marriage. Until her death, Coretta Scott King fought against a wide variety of injustices by addressing the multiple inequities built into society. 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King). Coretta Scott King’s activism authentically embodied this influential quote. While Dr. King’s crucial work towards racial justice created radical change, Coretta Scott King initiated, motivated and expanded King’s message to combat injustices on a global scale. Dr. King’s work would not have been possible without Coretta Scott King; she and many other women were at the core of the success of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. The erasure of Coretta Scott King’s contribution to combating social inequalities is evident to the racism and sexism that continue to permeate our society. While there are many intersecting factors that continue to marginalize specific identity groups from society, it is crucial that we all remember the work of both Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King that brought attention to these critical issues.

As described in an article detailing the impact of MLK’s work, we must remember that achieving true equality means extending this value farther than our own communities in order to work towards global justice. As shown in the diversity of issues Coretta Scott King worked to combat, there are a multitude of ways to make impactful change. MLK day is about more than the individual legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.; it is about the collective struggle of achieving equality for all. The work of many activists continues to go unnoticed due to the invisible barriers that silence the voices of marginalized identities. Dr. King was a voice for many, he was the cutting image of an oppressed individual that was finally being heard by the public at large. His perseverance, strength, wisdom and intelligence should be celebrated with pride, but the essential figures that made the movement possible should never be forgotten. While Coretta Scott King is one of the most notable, she is hardly the only one. As we celebrate the legacy of MLK this January, let’s remember the people whose activism advanced the Civil Rights Movement and expanded MLK’s powerful messages in order to work towards achieving overarching social justice.

Grace Sullivan is a first-year at Notre Dame studying global affairs with a minor in gender studies. In her column I.M.P.A.C.T (Intersectionality Makes Political Activist Change Transpire), she is passionate about looking at global social justice issues through an intersectional feminist lens. Outside of The Observer, she enjoys hiking, painting and being a plant mom. She can be reached at @gsulli22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.

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