Remembering the lady who took up the torch

February 01, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

Over the years, I've covered enough election-night parties to know that for the spouse of a leader, the end of a loved one's time in the spotlight is often a relief.

No more late-night phone calls and no more being an afterthought or a prop who represents a happy family life, no matter what happens behind closed doors.

I thought about that when I heard that Coretta Scott King, the widow of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had died at age 78.

Of course, the great civil rights leader didn't lose an election. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of a Memphis motel while in town to support striking sanitation workers.


Mrs. King's husband had died, but she did not allow his cause to falter. Four days after he died, she led 50,000 on a march through Memphis.

She summed up her philosophy in a June 1999 address to the Academy of Achievement at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

"When I say I was married to the cause, I was married to my husband whom I loved - I learned to love, it wasn't love at first sight - but I also became married to the cause," she said.

After he died, she said she prayed for guidance and determined that her mission was to build the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

According to the King Center Web site, she spent 27 years developing the 23-acre facility and its programs and promoting her late husband's birthday as a national holiday.

She did not envision the day as a time to celebrate, but as a time to serve. In a copyrighted interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she said it should be a national day of service, during which people physically help out someone, as opposed to writing a check to some organization.

If on that day people of different races could work together and get to know one another, it would begin the process of improving race relations, she said, because that process begins with better relationships among people.

In an interview with Andrea Lewis of Pacific News Service, Mrs. King had this suggestion:

"The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others."

I seldom write about national topics because I have no special access to national newsmakers. I know little more - if that much - than the average reader about such topics.

What I do know, and what I have written over the years, is that while many have accepted the civil-rights legislation passed in the 1960s as the law of the land, some have not accepted it in their hearts.

That's not to say that there has not been progress made in the last 40 years. But patting ourselves on the back for what's been accomplished so far would be a little bit like having a housewarming as soon as the home's foundation walls were built.

My suggestion for a next step: By the next celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on Jan. 16, 2007, Washington County should have a project that brings county residents of all races and backgrounds together.

What might that be?

One suggestion came last October from Richard M. Williams, the author of "They Stole It, But You Must Return It" and "Torches on the Road of Passage."

Williams was the opening speaker at the 2005 Black Talk Conference, held at the Bethel Gardens Community Center.

He spoke about what happened in Rochester, N.Y., where a group of ministers formed an alliance that later sponsored a community fair with free health screenings for all, a mentor program and an effort to combat teen pregnancy.

This is not someone else's problem. As noted in the local school system's Minority Achievement Task Force report, if a large number of people in the community are floundering, economically or otherwise, it doesn't just affect them. It affects all of us.

Coretta Scott King knew her cause was a serious one when a bomb went off on the porch of her Montgomery, Ala., home. It shouldn't take an explosion to remind us that there is much work left to be done.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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