Celebrating Lives of Courage, Love, and Service

January 15, 2018

Today our nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the courageous civil rights leader who dedicated his life to seeking justice, peace, and dignity for all.

Most of us are familiar with Dr. King’s lifetime of advocacy and service, but we may know less about his remarkable wife and partner, Coretta Scott King. She worked for years to establish a national holiday in her husband’s honor, hoping to inspire others to carry on his legacy. 

Mrs. King was a committed member of the civil rights movement in her own right. Just four days after Dr. King’s assassination, she traveled from her home in Atlanta and marched alongside other civil rights leaders on behalf of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. On Mother’s Day, 1968, Mrs. King led thousands of women in a march on Washington, D.C. to kick off the Poor People’s Campaign. And in 1969, she visited Yale as the first Frances Blanshard Fellow. 

“We are experiencing the birth pangs of a new age,” she told the standing-room-only audience in Woolsey Hall. Speaking about the growing student protests against war, poverty, and racism on college campuses, Mrs. King said, “Today’s youth know that oppression in any form threatens freedom everywhere.”

“Maybe the students, more than their elders, recognize that the world in which we live has shrunk to such a dimension that, whether we like it or not, we live in One World. And to paraphrase John Donne, no man, no nation, no race, is an island entire of itself,” she told the crowd.

Throughout her lifetime, Mrs. King championed the principles of nonviolence. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement and the women’s movement, and she spoke up for the rights of LGBT people. She did all this as a single mother caring for four young children. 

Before her marriage, Mrs. King was already intimately familiar with the violence and terror far too many African-Americans experience. Born to a poor family in rural Alabama, she and her sister picked cotton for up to twelve hours per day to pay for their schooling. Their family’s home—built by her father—was burned to the ground by white racists when she was fifteen years old. Not long afterward, her father’s sawmill was also destroyed.

Yet out of these experiences, Dr. and Mrs. King imagined a better world—what they called “The Beloved Community.” 

“To me, the Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflicts exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness,” Mrs. King wrote toward the end of her life. “At its core, the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation. This way of living seems a long way from the kind of world we have now, but I do believe it is a goal that can be accomplished through courage and determination, and through education and training.”

Yale is celebrating Dr. King’s legacy with events, discussions, and opportunities for service. In remembering both Dr. and Mrs. King, I hope you will look for ways you can help build the Beloved Community.

“Struggle is a never-ending process and freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation,” wrote Coretta Scott King. “I believe future generations will have the courage, the love, and the faith to get this done. This is my hope, and this is my prayer.”