A towering figure is gone
Coretta Scott King has passed away. The civil rights matriarch suffered a stroke and heart attack last year, and was last seen publicly just a couple of weeks ago.
This loss is so great because Mrs. King was an advocate for civil rights who believed that phrase was inclusive — those of us in the LGBT family knew that she was on our side. While other figures in the civil rights movement, including Coretta’s daughter Bernice, have chosen exclusion, demonization, and marginalization of gays and lesbians, Coretta Scott King stood regally and spoke eloquently about why discrimination of any kind is wrong.
The following are the remarks made by Coretta Scott King at the opening plenary session of the 13th annual Creating Change conference, organized by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in Atlanta on November 9, 2000.
I think we all need a few days to recuperate from the stress-filled election we have just experienced, but not much more, because we have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination.
I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. 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.
My husband, Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny…an inescapable network of mutuality.… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.” Therefore, I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.
In addition to this fundamental moral principle, there is a very practical reason why people involved in human rights should support each other and work together. And that reason is that the whole of us united makes us stronger than the sum of our parts. This principle of synergy is eloquently summed up in the equation “One plus one equals three.” In other words, there are things we achieve together that we can’t achieve separately.
In a way, we have just had an object lesson in the power of coalition unity. And I think we have just seen the future of American democracy flash before our eyes last Tuesday. The coalition that gave Al Gore a popular majority can surely be as powerful as the New Deal coalition that transformed America in an earlier era.
So what comes next for the NGLTF, the King Center, and indeed all organizations working for human rights and social justice must be a new emphasis on working together in coalitions. With this commitment, we can pass comprehensive hate crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and secure full funding for AIDS research, prevention, and treatment. We can defend affirmative action and support a broad range of common legislative and policy priorities.
It is encouraging that we have seen more gay and lesbian candidates elected to political office. It is important for lesbian and gay officeholders and their constituencies to achieve greater visibility as supporters of laws that benefit the entire community. I think this will help educate the American public that lesbian and gay people seek the same goals of quality education for young people, cleaner air and water, safe streets and better health care that straight people want. We have to work harder for the broader vision of the compassionate and caring society that demands decent living standards for all citizens.
Now that the election is finally behind us, we must turn our full attention to building a tightly knit coalition of human rights groups that can act swiftly and effectively for needed policy reforms. Let’s make this first decade of the 21st century an era of unprecedented expansion in freedom and democracy.
And as we work for needed reforms, we must also look ahead to the next elections, mindful that we need more people of color in America’s federal, state, and local political institutions. And we also need more women and more lesbian and gay officeholders as well. This is how we make our political institutions reflect the diversity of the American people.
Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walks a picket line with others to protest apartheid in South Africa, in this Nov. 29, 1984 file photo, at the South African Embassy in Washington. King, who turned a life shattered by her husband’s assassination into one devoted to enshrining his legacy of human rights and equality, has died, former mayor Andrew Young told NBC Tuesday, morning, Jan. 31, 2006. She was 78. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)
In closing, my friends, I just want to say that I’m proud to stand with you today as we build a great new American coalition for freedom and human rights for all people. Despite the formidable challenges we face, I believe that we will succeed in creating a more compassionate and just society.
I’ll conclude my remarks tonight with a few words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Press Club in July of 1962. The 38 years that have come and gone since then have done nothing to diminish the relevance of his remarks. Indeed, they seem particularly appropriate to the challenge we face today.
“We are simply seeking,” said Martin, “to bring into full realization the American dream—a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; the dream of a land where everyone will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality—this is the dream. When it is realized, the jangling discords of our nation will be transformed into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, and men everywhere will know that America is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
With this faith, sisters and brothers, let us work together with renewed passion and commitment to create the beloved community of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, where all people can live together in a spirit of trust and understanding, harmony, love, and peace.
Who will step forward to fill this aching void? Who will be the shepherd of the true movement for civil equality?
* biography of Coretta Scott King at The King Center site.