I like to fancy myself as a historian. Four years of rigorous writing, too many nights to count with my nose in a book and an unwavering love and appreciation for the story of the people have characterized my love affair with history. However, I learned very quickly in my study of history that it truly is written by the victors-the victors normally being white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy men. Unfortunately, black history hasn’t been much better-and that is one part of being a historian that grinds my gears. Too often, when we think of the women of the Civil Rights Movement, we see black women who contributed to the health, vitality and legacy of the movement, portrayed as docile helpmates, quiet observers, and dedicated partners supporting their male counterparts in the struggle for black liberation. From Diane Nash’s life as a powerhouse SNCC organizer being replaced with an image of her as a light skinned docile sandwich maker in “Selma” to the obliteration of Pauli Murray’s contributions to the legal field in the Civil Rights Movement, black women have had their work and lives pared down in comparison to the men of the movement.
This same erasure happened to Coretta Scott King. While many of us know her as Martin’s loving wife who stayed in the background supporting her husband as a preacher’s wife and mother, Coretta was an activist in her own right, well before she married Martin. She was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as joining groups such as the Young Progressives and the Civil Liberties Committee at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During the Civil Rights Movement, she supported Martin Luther King, Jr. in his movement work by participating in marches and boycotts. She also played a large role in the founding of the National Organization for women, hosting a NOW convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Coretta continued to be active in justice work throughout her life, working to advance civil rights for all and founding The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. Located in the historic Sweet Auburn district of the city, the Center is a space for historical and political education as well as a monument to Martin’s childhood neighborhood and the place of internment for both Coretta and Martin.
When I reflect on the lives of the women in the Civil Rights Movement, it makes me sad to see black women with dynamic work, lives and spirits have their contributions written out of the historical record. When we allow history to be written by the victors, we lose some of the most vital portions of our collective story. Coretta Scott King’s contributions to the movement were vast and contained multitudes of work, love and care. To leave her story in only half of its truth does a disservice to the women who contributed to our country’s growth, as well as to ourselves and our collective story.