Area observers reflect on Mrs. King's contributions


Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 10:14 p.m.
Coretta Scott King was a stronger force in the struggle for civil rights than people might realize, some people in Gainesville said Tuesday after learning of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow at age 78.
"I'm not sure the movement could have succeeded without her," said the Rev. Thomas Wright, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church and one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in North Florida. "You hear the phrase that behind every great man is a woman. But I think you could say in front of every man there is a faithful woman . . . I don't think Dr. King could have carried on without her."
Wright said he had been at rallies and speeches attended by Mrs. King, but never met her in person. He said he doesn't think she ever visited Gainesville, but she was invited.
In the early 1970s, he said, he wrote her a letter inviting her to speak during the opening of the Palmer King Day Care Center in Gainesville.
"She wrote back and said she would like to come but she couldn't afford it," Wright said. "And we couldn't afford to offer her any honorarium to speak. She was left with four small children and didn't have a lot of money."
Vivian Filer, who has been active in causes inside and outside Gainesville's black community, called Mrs. King "powerful and empowering."
"She really was a driving force behind her husband by her willingness to be by his side 100 percent," she said. "She may have been in the shadows, but I think she was more at the forefront than we realize."
Filer said Mrs. King's greatest legacy was her untiring effort to establish a legacy for her husband - the King Center in Atlanta.
"Through her dedication to keep that alive, she was leaving a legacy of her own in that way," she said. "Her push to have the King Center gave us all a place to go."
Her husband often is seen as the catalyst of the civil rights movement. But it really began before him and, through his wife, continued after him, said Michael Bowie, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"She definitely was a civil rights leader and continued to carry the torch," Bowie said.
He said that while he never met Mrs. King, he attended events where she was present. It's one thing to read books about Martin Luther King Jr. and listen to recordings of his speeches, Bowie said, but seeing someone who was there when the history was being made made it more special to him.
"It was wonderful to be in her presence," Bowie said. "You got the warm feeling that she was not out there for self, but for the world. She tried to make people see we would have to make changes in order to make the world a better place for all.
"She believed in civil rights for all," he said. "For her it really was a human rights issue."
Alachua County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said the world has "lost a real leader."
"Coretta Scott King was a role model for all women of what courage is about," she said. "Here she was widowed at a young age and she picked up the mantle and carried on her husband's legacy for (nearly) 40 years. That speaks volumes about her strength.
"And she carried out her role with dignity and grace," Chestnut said. "That also is something young women should try to emulate."
She said she was reminded of Mrs. King's "quiet strength" Tuesday morning by a news report about her death. It recounted how Mrs. King took a phone call from "an agitator" late one night who wanted to speak to her husband. She told the man that her husband was asleep and couldn't be disturbed, and that she would have him call the next morning.
"That was powerful," Chestnut said. "He probably wanted to get angry."
Rosa B. Williams, a longtime force in Gainesville's equal-rights movement, said that had it not been for Mrs. King, the name Martin Luther King Jr. today might not be as recognizable as it is.
"Her contribution to the movement when he was alive was that she was a very devoted wife and supported him," she said. "After his death, that was when she played a bigger role. She put herself up front to keep his dream alive.
"She started the (National King Memorial) Foundation and other things in his name," Williams said. "She had to cross a lot of ditches, but if she was not out there pushing for that, I don't think his name would be out there like it is."
Wright said people generally don't realize that for the Kings and their four children, "the struggle" wasn't limited just to the movement, and the threats and challenges that came with it. There was the more practical day-to-day struggle just to make ends meet. "Dr. King never made more than $12,000 a year," he said. "The family lived under a lot of financial strain.
"Her legacy will be how she sacrificed and while her husband was out marching for the good cause, she was home trying to raise their four children," Wright said. "They fell in love when they were quite young, and she was well trained in music and could have said, I want my own career, my own legacy separate from my husband's. But she didn't do that. She connected her talents to the movement and stayed with it to the end."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com

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