Mrs. King's Legacy of Love
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When Coretta Scott King, died in her sleep overnight on Jan. 30 at age 78, America lost one of its most eloquent and forceful activists for gay and lesbian rights. That statement might surprise some readers, and anger others, who primarily remember Mrs. King, the wife of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a heroine in the fight for racial justice.
But for more than a decade, Mrs. King was also an unflinching advocate for the equal treatment of gay and lesbian people. She spoke out against the ban on gays in the military, testified on behalf of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and came out in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry. She repeatedly addressed gay and lesbian rights groups and rallies, and spoke valiantly in support of gay causes. Even when it was controversial and unpopular among other black civil rights leaders, Mrs. King did not waiver. Indeed, members of her own family remain split on the issue of gay and lesbian rights, with some descendants of Martin Luther King Jr. vocally opposed to gay and lesbian civil rights.
Some black leaders, many of whom have their roots in the black churches, continue to organize actively against gay and lesbian rights, supposedly on moral grounds. Some of them even use Dr. Martin Luther King's name in their crusades. But no one knew the late civil rights leader like his own wife, and she adamantly maintained that the principles she and her husband established and fought for all their lives must apply to all groups, including gay and lesbian people.
"I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice," she said in March 1998. "But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people."
Her history and her standing in the African-American community made her a particularly formidable ally. While many African-American leaders virulently oppose equating the black civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, Mrs. King embraced the obvious parallels. "Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood," she said in a speech in Chicago in April 1998, just days before the 30th anniversary of her late husband's assassination. "I've always felt that homophobic attitudes and policies were unjust and unworthy of a free society and must be opposed by all Americans who believe in democracy."
Though the phrase "human rights" is perhaps so over-used today as to have lost its meaning, Mrs. King was a true champion of that notion. And she made it clear that her vision included gay and lesbian people.
"Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender or ethnic discrimination," she remarked in a speech at the November 2000 Creating Change conference, a gay rights convention held annually by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Coretta Scott felt the scourge of discrimination from the very beginning of her life. Born on a farm in Heiberger, Ala., in 1927, she and other little black children were forced to walk five miles each way to attend a one-room school house in Marion, Ala., while white children rode buses to an all-white school closer to their homes. But the young woman excelled in her studies, graduating as the valedictorian of her high school, and going on to win a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio. At the university, she immediately joined the civil rights movement, becoming a student member of the NAACP and the school's Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees. After graduating from Antioch, she won another scholarship to study concert singing at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It was in Boston that she met a theology student named Martin Luther King, Jr. After she finished her degree from the New England Conservatory, she married and moved with her new husband to Montgomery, Ala. From there, Coretta Scott King held a front row seat in the tumultuous civil rights movement. But she was not simply the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. She used her musical talents to stage a series of Freedom Concerts in some of the country's most distinguished venues, to both highlight the civil rights movement and raise money for it. After her husband's death, she founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She authored an autobiography, remained active in politics, and campaigned to have Martin Luther King Day established as a national holiday.
And along her path, she became an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian civil rights, as well.
It would not do Mrs. King justice, however, to simply call her a gay and lesbian rights advocate. Nor would it be enough to say only that she had been a giant in the black civil rights movement.
Mrs. King, like her husband, was one of those truly inspirational leaders who transcended the "me, me, me" that is too rampant in much of contemporary political activism, including in the gay and lesbian rights movement. But I fear in her death that too many gays and lesbians, thrilled that such a stalwart championed our cause, may miss her larger message.
If part of Mrs. King's legacy is to call anti-gay black leaders on their homophobia, so too should she stand as a reminder to gay and lesbian people to confront the racism that lingers in our own ranks.
For almost two years now, I have lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. I have been shocked at the not-so-subtle racism of many of my gay friends and acquaintances who have come to visit.
Sadly, unlike Mrs. King, it appears that too many gay and lesbian people continue to fail to see the connections that all of us who face discrimination share.
As Mrs. King remarked at a press conference in June 1994, while speaking out in favor of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act: "Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don't believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others."
And Mrs. King never did.