Land still ripped by race should heed strong women

Published 10:09 am Saturday, March 28, 2015

She was so damned strong but she tended to vanish into the shadows behind her husband.

Those words could be true for many a woman, certainly some women I know, probably some you know.

My immediate reference is to Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin King. He overshadowed her in life and death. But she was very strong and very cool, as are so many of our wives, grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces and all the rest who don’t receive near the credit they deserve.

I know that’s true in my family. I bet it is in many of yours as well.

I sure have been guilty of perpetuating patriarchal primacy. I’ve written far more words here about my father and other men than I have about the women in my family and other stalwart women.

But, especially after last week, with revelations of racist rants by Oklahoma frat boys and the ambush shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, we need to learn from more strong women.

Like Coretta Scott King. We should revere this unofficial first lady every bit as much as we do the official ones. Coretta King was bright and brilliant. She would have been a star all on her own. At her 1953 wedding to Martin King, presided over by his father, she “insisted that the vows exclude all mention of the wife’s obligation to ‘obey’ her husband. Coretta had no interest in being a subservient wife,” Tavis Smiley and David Ritz write in “Death of a King.”

None of the official first ladies, with the possible exception of Mrs. Lincoln, endured what Coretta King did. Yes, Mrs. Lincoln went through the terrible assassination of her husband at her side, but she was safe in the White House in the years before.

Coretta King spent the last years of her husband’s life in almost daily terror that 50 years on we can hardly imagine in the United States. There were constant threats and their Georgia house was bombed. It was just a matter of God’s grace that their four children were not murdered like the four girls in the Birmingham church bombing.

It was almost as bad as life is for families in war-torn Middle-Eastern lands in which our country is involved today.

Martin King saw that involvement coming as he raced around the country in his last years, exhausted and depressed, preaching against senseless death in Vietnam even as he kept sensing his own untimely death looming.

Coretta King supported him through it all, even as he had affairs with other women, some of which she knew about.

He wanted her to play the domestic role, even as she inspired the movement on her own. And he knew damned well that he owed his catapult into national prominence during the Montgomery bus boycott to Rosa Parks. Coretta knew that too. “In 1966, she told the press that ‘not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership … but … [w]omen have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement,’” Smiley and Ritz write.

There were numerous hearty women in the fight, including Fanny Lou Hamer in Mississippi; Ella Baker, with roots in Littleton, N.C.; Myrlie Evers, the widow of the slain martyr Medgar; and Viola Luizzo, the white housewife and mother who was shotgunned to death in Alabama.

And there were countless black women and white women who played all but anonymous roles in the fight, ranging from white women alienated by their friends for simply saying integration was right to black women standing up to racist courthouse clerks. As my buddy Tim Tyson writes in his upcoming book about the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till in a Mississippi dominated by systemic racism, “Courthouse clerks turned [blacks] away for no reason more compelling than their own objection to Negro voting.”

(All the more reason for modern-day North Carolina not to allow courthouse workers to opt out of providing marriage services based on a “religious objection.”)

Coretta and so many women played powerful roles in the civil rights fight.

After the King house was bombed, Martin King bought a gun. Earlier, “It was Coretta who helped persuade him to give up the weapon,” Smiley and Ritz write. They also write that “it was Coretta who spent long hours discussing Gandhi” with him.

She kept him on the nonviolent path. She was the parent who fed their children breakfast, lunch and dinner, helped them with their homework and did so much more for them.

After her husband’s death, Coretta King kept on fighting — including for women, gays and for peace.

She’s gone now. But we’re surrounded by other strong women, and we need them now more than ever.

Our country is still ripped by race and violence. We’re not at peace, and neither are the countries where we’re militarily involved.

Some day we will finally slouch to peace, crawling past the carnage of thousands of years of war. And a woman will lead us.

JOHN RAILEY is a Courtland native editorial page editor for the Winston Salem Journal, where this column first appeared.