By Contributor on February 01, 2006

Coretta Scott King, who died on Jan. 31, will perhaps forever be known as the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But there was much more to Coretta King than that.

She was a serious thinker, a committed activist, a talented musician and an outspoken woman whose influence and activism extended well beyond the career of her famous husband, who was assassinated in 1968.

Born on a farm in Alabama in 1927, she traveled north in 1945 to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she was one of only six black students. She encountered racism there but would not be deterred from her goal of becoming a teacher and a professional musician. She went on to pursue her graduate studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which is where she met her future husband.

Coretta Scott was a civil rights activist years before she met King. While a student at Antioch, she was banned from student teaching at a nearby integrated school because one of her supervisors felt black teachers should not teach white children. She protested the restriction and decided to join the campus NAACP chapter as a result.

She later supported Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in the 1948 presidential campaign, becoming a student delegate to the party's national convention that year.

After her marriage to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953, she took on the roles of wife and mother. However, she never abandoned her political beliefs or moral convictions.

Unfortunately, after her husband was catapulted to international acclaim in the 1950s and '60s, most political observers and historians relegated her to his very large and encompassing shadow.

Coretta Scott King, to some extent, embraced this traditional role of helpmate to her husband, but it was never as simple as that.

She was a supporter of King, and she tolerated what biographers have reported as a troubled and sexist marriage. But there was also a sense of purpose and determination that was all her own.

She traveled the world with King, marched alongside him and urged him to take a stand against the war in Vietnam before he himself had decided to do so.

The real strength of her character, however, is perhaps best evident in the work she did and the stances she took after her husband's death. She used the platform his name gave her to deliver some courageous and compelling messages.

For nearly 40 years, Ms. King was a syndicated columnist, public speaker and protester.

The founding president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, she joined civil disobedience actions to protest the racist system of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and later traveled to that country to express her solidarity with its people.

She lectured at Harvard University, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and in churches, schools and community centers all over the United States.

She called for more funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and research.

She demanded a moratorium on the death penalty.

She supported gun control legislation and a cancellation of Africa's debt as a strategy for development.

And in a significant move, when black ministers in Atlanta rallied in 2004 to oppose gay marriage, she opposed them as shortsighted and wrongheaded. She defended gay rights as a form of civil rights, and condemned gay bashing.

In short, she took stances on issues that went well beyond the civil rights consensus of the 1960s.

History has unfairly placed women like Coretta Scott King in the margins and the footnotes of its texts. It is time we remember them as more than civil rights movement wives and widows. We should also recognize them as conscious historical actors and activists in their own right.

Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning biography "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" (UNC Press, 2003). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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