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Working with Coretta Scott King

by HEATHER GRAY

This week we lost Coretta Scott King. Yet, we have witnessed that her life’s work will be on-going through what has already been generated from her efforts. Mrs. King taught about her husband and his career, but she ventured far beyond that. She provided us with the provocative tools of non-violent social change. She knew how important this education was if we are to continue demanding social change and justice in the world. She took to heart Dr. King’s often quoted statement that the “Arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice.” This is a message of hope and she wisely provided us with the tools to go forward, while seeking justice and attempting to bend the arc. She was defiant about this.

My first interaction with Coretta Scott King, albeit at a distance, began in April of 1968. Her husband, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had just been assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. I was in Atlanta at the time and working for the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to escort people who were coming into the city for Dr. King’s funeral.

I was asked to drive civil rights activist and attorney Allard Lowenstein from the airport to visit Mrs. King so he could pay his respects, and then to the home of Reverend Ralph David Abernathy who was King’s second in command. I stood outside Mrs. King’s home while waiting for him. Among others, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. walked out of the house. Because so many people wanted to see Mrs. King, they were asked to enter the back of the house and come out the front to maintain a consistent flow.

She was serving fried chicken and as there were so many visitors and so much chicken, the empty boxes were being burned in her back yard to make room for more. To this day, I remember the smell of those burning boxes.

Throngs of people surrounded Mrs. King’s home. I was the only white person around, except for Lowenstein who was in the house. This was on April 7 – but four days since Dr. King had been killed. Riots were taking place throughout the country. Atlanta was spared the huge riots like those in Watts, Memphis and elsewhere, but there was understandable tension in the air. Nevertheless, I would say that most of us who stood there that evening were in a state of shock.

While taking Lowenstein to Reverend Abernathy’s house my car stalled on Hunter Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). Three Black youth rushed the car and started shaking it. Lowenstein said, “Heather, you need to start this car.” “I’m trying,” I responded. Miraculously the car launched forward and we were off.

The April 1968 occasion was my first introduction the King home, which, some 15 years later, I would visit frequently while working for Mrs. King.

My next chapter with Mrs. King was in the 1970’s. After being out of the United States for a number of years, I came back to Atlanta and visited Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue ­ the historic home church of the King family. Dr. King’s “birth home” is also on Auburn Avenue as was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). (Dr. King, and others, established SCLC as the organization to implement the civil rights agenda).

The first time I saw Mrs. King at Ebenezer in the 1970’s I didn’t quite know how to respond. There seemed to be a certain aura that surrounded her. I sensed immediately that she was uncomfortable with my reaction, which I am sure she’d witnessed frequently. I stood there staring and rather in awe of the woman.

After the assassination of her husband, Mrs. King was determined not to let his death end the non-violent movement and the momentum that had been years in the making. With other civil rights leaders she planned and established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Located next to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center transformed Atlanta. It included an adjoining reflecting pool with the renowned and identifiable tomb of Dr. King where Mrs. King greeted countless visitors who came to honor the great leader. Annually, thousands of people throughout the world visit the King tomb and tour the legendary sites on Auburn Avenue.

In the1980’s I was fortunate to work for Mrs. King at the Center. At first I worked on a grant to research and develop a curriculum on non-violent social change and then to briefly direct the non-violent program. How to describe this experience?

Mrs. King told me that the plan was for the King Center to train activists in non-violent methods and for SCLC to serve as the activist arm of the movement.

With that as her goal, Mrs. King established a unique institution. The center was a mecca for civil rights leaders and grassroot activists from all over the world. Youth around the country came to the Center to be trained in non-violent methods for social change and to meet and be mentored by civil rights giants like John Lewis, Bernard LaFayette, Reverend C. T. Vivian, Rosa Parks, James Orange, Reverend Joseph Lowery, Ann Bradenon and on.

There were forums on every conceivable issue of relevance at the Center ­ if it concerned a struggle for justice, Mrs. King was receptive. Of course, her primary interest was to address the triple evils of racism, militarism and imperialism and she did exactly that!

Mrs. King institutionalized in Atlanta an appreciation for and acknowledgement of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence. She did this through literature, forums and annual events honoring Gandhi.

She honored Rosa Parks and established a special room at the Center we always knew affectionately and respectfully as the Rosa Parks Room. I remember when Mrs. Parks came to the center for the inaugural ceremony of this room. Mrs. Parks was known as the mother of the civil rights movement. By refusing to walk to the back of the bus in Montgomery in 1955, she launched the modern civil rights era. From her action, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was initiated which Dr. King was asked to lead. This was the beginning of his remarkable civil rights career.

While many of the King papers are in institutions around the country, today the Center also holds archival materials and literature on civil rights history and non-violent philosophy. Mrs. King was adamant that they were available for those who wanted to learn. In addition, she made available to us all, Dr. King’s writings, and the history of the movement in film and numerous recordings of speeches by King and others. She was vigilant in her quest to provide virtually every conceivable opportunity for people to learn about the modern civil rights movement and the methods for change.

I was working at the King Center when the National Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was initiated in 1986. I was amazed at the huge number of women from the U.S. and the world who came to rally around Coretta King and support her during this remarkable celebration. Eleanor Holmes Norton was the dean of them all. The mood was absolutely euphoric.

At Mrs. King’s request I organized the first International Anti-Apartheid Conference at the Center as one of the ceremonial and educational forums in the launching of the King holiday. The Conference took place in Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was filled to capacity.

For this full day event, we had anti-apartheid activists participating such as Johnny Makathini of the African National Congress Observer Mission to the United Nations; producer Danny Schechter with singer Steven Van Zandt who had recently produced the album “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” to discourage artists from performing in and supporting the apartheid South African government; representatives of the Washington Office on Africa; Jennifer Davis of the American Committee on Africa in New York; and Tandi Gcabashe of the American Friends Service Committee’s Southern Africa Peace Education Project in Atlanta (Gcabashe was the exiled daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli who was the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1961 and formerly the President of the African National Congress.)

This event was typical of Mrs. King’s work. She was successful in drawing people together and providing an atmosphere and opportunity for learning, sharing and planning. All of this is necessary for the building of grasssroot movements as she was well aware.

In addition to all this, Mrs. King was constantly in demand to speak at events and to endorse every imaginable issue. She did this while seeking financial resources to maintain the King Center and raising her four children. It was never easy. And while conflicts and disputes occasionally arose at the Center, which is to be expected in most growing institutions, Mrs. King far exceeded her mission of educating people in the tactics of non-violent social change.

Upon reflection, Coretta Scott King, more than any other, has taught us about Martin Luther King and the methods of non-violent social change. It is likely that the modern civil rights movement in America and its methods would be a footnote were it not for her. She provided opportunities for young aspiring activists to learn about and adapt the non-violent tools. Her work spawned similar non-violent centers throughout the world. She kept the flame burning and it is not about to be extinguished. Hers was a job well done! Her legacy will be profound.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. In the 1980’s she worked form Coretta Scott King. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

 

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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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