When widowhood speaks to black civil rights: Coretta Scott King

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Coretta Scott King speaks at March on Washington June 19, 1968
Following a speech she gave only 3 weeks following the assassination of her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Coretta Scott King, stands in for her late husband at the podium on the Lincoln Memorial as she addresses a pre-scheduled black civil rights rally sponsored by the Poor People’s March on Solidarity Day, June 19, 1968 in Washington, D.C. Her husband Dr. King had been assassinated only two months before the date of the scheduled rally. During her speech she told the nearly 50,000 persons gathered that “racism, poverty, and war” had combined to make matters worse for poor black and white alike. Image ©Bettmann/CORBIS

(WNN) Washington, D.C., UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: In a Pacifica Radio ‘Rewind’ recording Coretta Scott King, the new widow of black civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, spoke to the public in Central Park, New York City on April 27, 1968. It was a time that Mrs. King knew she had to step up to the podium to speak in her husband’s absence. In her speech Coretta shared the never beforehand shared text from Martin Luther King’s private notes, the ‘”Ten Commandments On Vietnam.”

As a widow who had walked in the shadow of her husband’s public legacy, Coretta’s life took a dramatic change with the death of her husband as she became, an outgoing and tireless spokesperson for human rights, dignity and equality for all people, especially for the civil rights movement, after April 4, 1968, the date her husband died.

The legacy of black civil rights in the United States began with the struggle of those African Americans in the 1600s who were trapped during two plus centuries of human slavery as they were denied the rights to personal freedom and independence, as well as the right to keep their own children, the right to vote in the legislative process, the right to legally marry and the right to own land. In the mid 1800s the rise of the abolitionist freedom movement in America spurred the U.S. civil war as the 1860-1861 secession of eleven U.S. southern states was put into place. Those states which seceded from the United States federal government included the States of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

With strong advocacy for the efforts of women in the modern civil rights movement, Coretta outlines in her speech the power of black women, and women everywhere who work toward a better world when she said, “The woman power of this nation can be the power which makes us whole and heals the rotten community, now so shattered by war and poverty and racism. I have great faith in the power of women who will dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to the task of remaking our society. I believe that the women of this nation and of the world are the best and last hope for a world of peace and brotherhood.”

Listen here to Coretta Scott King’s speech on a radio show production by Pacifica Radio in 1968:


Pacifica Radio 1968 Revolution Rewind – Coretta Scott King

Producer: Pacifica Radio Preservation Access Project

Date: April 1968

Length: 3:55 min

Background / Speech Transcription:

“My dear friends of peace and freedom –

I come to New York today with a strong feeling that my dearly beloved husband, who was snatched suddenly from our midst slightly more than three weeks ago now, would have wanted me to be present today.

Though my heart is heavy with grief from having suffered an irreparable personal loss, my faith in the redemptive will of God is stronger today than ever before.

As many of you probably know my husband had accepted an invitation to speak to you today and had he been here, I am sure he would have lifted your hearts and spirits to new levels of understanding in his customary fashion.

I would like to share with you some notes taken from my husband’s pockets upon his death. He carried these scraps of paper upon which he scribbled notes for his many speeches.

Among these notes was one set which he never delivered. Perhaps they were his early thoughts for the message he was to give to you today. I am sure he would have developed and delivered them in his usual eloquent and inspired fashion. I simply read them to you as he recorded them. And I quote —

“Ten Commandments on Vietnam”

1. Thou shalt not believe in a military victory.

2. Thou shall not believe in a political victory.

3. Thou shall not believe that they, the Vietnamese love us.

4. Thou shall not believe that the Saigon government has the support of the people.

5. Thou shall not believe that the majority of the South Vietnamese look upon the Vietcong as terrorists.

6. Thou shalt not believe the figures of killed enemies or killed Americans.

7. Thou shall not believe that the generals know best.

8. Thou shalt not believe that the enemy’s victory means communism.

9. Thou shall not believe that the world supports the United States.

10. Thou shall not kill.

These are Martin Luther King’s ten commandments on Vietnam.

You who have worked with and loved my husband so much, you who have kept alive the burning issue of war in the American conscience, you who will not be deluded by talk of peace, but who press on in the knowledge that the work of peacemaking must continue until the last gun is silent.

I come to you in my grief only because you keep alive the work and dreams for which my husband gave his life. My husband arrived somewhere to his strength and inspiration from the love of all people who shared his dream, that I too now come hoping you might strengthen me for the lonely road ahead.

It was on April 4th, 1967 that my husband gave his major address against the war in Vietnam. On April 4th, 1968 he was assassinated. I remember how he agonized over the grave misunderstanding which took place as a result of his position on the Vietnam war.

His motives were questioned. His credentials were challenged and his loyalty to this nation maligned. Now, one year later we see almost unbelievable results coming from all of our united efforts.

Had we then suggested the possibility of two peace candidates as front-runners for the presidency of the United States, our sanity certainly would have been questioned. Yet I need not trace for you how many of our hopes have been realized in these 12 short months. Never in the history of this nation have the people been so forceful in reversing the policy of our government in regard to war. We are indeed on the threshold of a new day for the peacemakers.

But just as conscientious action has reversed the tide of public opinion and government policy, we must now turn our attention and the sole force of the movement of people of good will to the problems of the poor here at home.

My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty here at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin. In fact, it is even very clear that our policy at home is to try to solve social problems through military means just as we have done abroad.

The interrelatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is no longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all of their devastating potential. And so I would invite you to join us in Washington in our effort to enable the poor people of this nation to enjoy a fair share of America’s blessing.

There is no reason why a nation as rich as ours should be blighted by poverty, disease, and illiteracy. It is plain that we don’t care about our poor people except to exploit them as cheap labor and victimize them through excessive rents and consumer prices.

Our Congress passes laws which subsidize corporation farms, oil companies, airlines, and houses for suburbia. But when they turn their attention to the poor, they suddenly become concerned about balancing the budget and cut back on the funds for Head Start, Medicare, and mental health appropriations.

The most tragic of these cuts is the welfare section to the Social Security amendment, which freezes federal funds for millions of needy children, who are desperately poor but who do not receive public assistance. It forces mothers to leave their children and accept work or training, leaving their children to grow up in the streets as tomorrow’s social problems. This law must be repealed, and I encourage you to join welfare mothers on May 12th, Mother’s Day and call upon Congress to establish a guaranteed annual income, instead of these racist and archaic measures, these measures which dehumanize God’s children and create more social problems than they solve.

We will be marching toward Washington soon. On Thursday, May 2nd we will return to Memphis to begin where my husband was slain and kick off his Poor People’s campaign.

We will be marching toward Washington to demand that America share its abundant life with all its citizens. We should arrive in Washington by May 17th. I invite you to support the purposes of this march and to join us in Washington on May 30th for the Memorial Day weekend.

I would now like to address myself to the women. The woman power of this nation can be the power which makes us whole and heals the rotten community, now so shattered by war and poverty and racism. I have great faith in the power of women who will dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to the task of remaking our society.

I believe that the women of this nation and of the world are the best and last hope for a world of peace and brotherhood. This challenge is simply but profoundly stated in the words of one of the greatest black poets, the late Langston Hughes. He called the poem “Mother to Son,” but it speaks to the sons and the daughters of this generation and those yet unborn. It speaks of the determination and the indestructible spirit of a black people who refuse to be conquered. This spirit must somehow be imbued in the hearts and souls of women and their sons everywhere.

Listen to this black mother as she counsels her son in all her ungrammatical profundity:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy,
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you stop now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

With this determination, with this faith, we will be able to create new homes, new communities, new cities, a new nation. Yea, a new world, which we desperately need!”


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