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A Garland for Coretta Scott King

It was 1978. Houston, Texas. 1,800 delegates and 18,000 observers and foreign guests assembled for the great National Women's Conference. It was a taste of what the world might be like if we had our rightful 51 percent share of the nation's political power.

The proposed National Plan of Action represented a solid agenda. However, it overlooked several concerns crucial to African, Asian, Chicano, Latino and Native American women.

On Saturday, November 19th, as opening ceremonies unfolded, storm clouds of dissent began to overtake the hall. But no one wanted to help anti-feminist shills derail the Equal Rights Amendment. How to keep the best and improve the rest. That was the challenge bringing women of color into coalition.

Seeds of redress had to be sown early. First delegate to speak from the floor of the opening session: “Madam Chair, I rise to address this body with the voice of a valiant woman who cannot be here to speak for herself, Fannie Lou Hamer.” It was C. Delores Tucker (the Civil Rights leader who died this past October) speaking for fallen warrior Hamer.

“I rise in opposition to the presence of the all-White delegation from Mississippi. It is a travesty on the purpose for which she gave her life,” Tucker continued, boos and cheers urging her on.

Such were the times. Hamer had challenged Mississippi’s all-White delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Fourteen years later, male or female, Mississippi was still Mississippi.

With Maxine Waters in the lead by Sunday morning, women of color had a strategy. Floor captains were given notice: “Watch Maxine. Wherever she runs, rush the other minority coalition speakers up behind her.”

But by the time Waters ran half the length of the convention hall to the designated microphone, another delegate was first in line. Disaster. With speakers at nine mikes to be heard, in turn, before her, anything might happen. “I don't know whether it was the gods or fate,” one delegate recalled. Whatever it was, the delegate ahead of Waters was providentially out on a point of order.

“Madam Chair. I rise on behalf of the United Minority Caucus of the National Women's Conference to offer a substitute resolution.” Maxine Waters at the helm. “Minority women share with all women the experience of sexism.... but institutionalized bias has led to additional oppression….” With that, she turned the microphone over to the next coalition speaker; and that woman, in turn, to the next, until…

“Madam Chair, I rise for Hispanic women... I yield to the delegate of the Black Women's Caucus."

Then the coup. “Madam Chair,” crooned a well-trained alto. It was the unmistakable voice of Coretta Scott King. The cheer that rose to greet her voice was deafening. As many later acknowledged, Mrs. King had been the woman least interested in holding the spotlight of the moment; yet hers was a voice graciously lent.

Thanks to her unifying force, the United Minority Caucus scored an historic blow to the proponents of “divide and conquer.”

By the time the much-welcomed “Madam Chair, I move the question” came, a near-unanimous standing vote passed the substitute Minority plank in what became the most spontaneously emotional outpouring of the conference. The hall was madness. The Chair, overwhelmed by it all, did not even bother to call for order. Thousands stood, voices raised as one, arms entwined. “We Shall Overcome” engulfed the hall.

In that moment, Coretta Scott King was and remained until her passing this week, First Lady to America’s peoples of color; a rallying voice for Human Rights worldwide.

Days after her husband’s murder in Memphis, she’d marched in support of the cause for which he had died: striking garbage workers. Three weeks after his death she appeared at an anti-war rally in New York. Five weeks after she led the Poor People’s Campaign to Washington. She would take on South African apartheid and support the “right to life” of gays, much to the chagrin of her husband’s ministerial peers.

Coretta Scott King didn’t just “carry on her husband’s legacy,” she carried forth a tradition of struggle she’d begun long before they ever met.

Foreshadowing their partnership, she removed the word “obey” from her marriage vows at the ceremony officiated by the formidable Martin Luther “Daddy” King, Sr.

When the young couple’s home was firebombed during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (inspired by recently departed Civil Rights icon, Rosa Parks), it was Coretta – firstborn in her arms – who calmed Martin and brought her own non-violent rigor to bear.

Born in rural Alabama, she’d survived a level of racist depravity her city-reared husband knew about but had never before lived. Three times Ku Klux Klan sympathizers firebombed her family’s businesses. Each time her parents rebuilt, holding fast to their dreams.

It was that discipline, devotion to mission, and vision that Coretta Scott King gave to us all. For that, she was duly revered and loved. She will be missed.

Job well done, Coretta. Well done.

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