Jacqueline Robinson, Vice President of The People’s Action
As the saying goes ‘behind every good man is a great woman.’ This could not hold more true for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While much is known about the Civil Rights icon, little is known about the women who stood in the trenches alongside the king. However, the lives and legacy of his wife, mother and women in his professional circle, is understated. These women helped to guide the hand of King and progress a movement that has given women all but a sliver of recognition.
Coretta Scott King married Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953 and was thus propelled into the spotlight as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. A force in her own right, Coretta Scott King was more than a mother and wife. Yet she, along with other women in Dr. King’s life, are rarely celebrated for their sacrifice and input during the Civil Rights Movement.
“There’s not a lot said about them. There are other female icons, Black icons, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur. People talk about Coretta Scott King, but it’s always in reference to her being his wife,” says Jacqueline Robinson, Vice President of The People’s Action and a member of the Board of Review for the city of Detroit for District 1.
For Mrs. King, her contribution to the movement was overshadowed by her husband’s grandeur. Though understated, Corertta Scott King organized and led the movement in a way only a woman could; with a quiet force and gentle authority.
“I believe Martin was chosen, I believe I was chosen, and I say to the kids, this family was chosen as well,” says Coretta Scott King in her posthumous book My Life, My Love, My Legacy.
Author Anna Malaika Tubbs recently released a book highlighting the mothers of three Civil Rights icons. Among them is Alberta Williams King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Raised in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Alberta’s lineage is one of faith and activism using education as a tool of weaponry.
“She grew up believing that Christian faith should always be intertwined with social justice. She believed in participating in marches and in boycotts and especially about having this privilege of education; how you use that to advance freedom causes,” says Tubbs in a virtual conference detailing her book.
During her life, Alberta used her education and position to address the social and racial issues of her time. An active member of the NAACP and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Alberta’s press for equality worked in tandem with that of her son until his murder.
Having a similar fate to her son, Alberta Williams King was assassinated as she played the organ at her home church, Ebenezer Baptist. As irony would have it, this King’s murder came at the hands of a white man who believed Christian Blacks to be his enemy.
Before her death, Alberta’s life provided a platform for her son to rise up and become one of the most recognizable figures in history. Though learning the ways of activism from his mother, history leaves little room for a woman’s mark in the Civil Rights Movement.
“A lot of it boils down to patriarchy and I think it’s something that our community doesn’t like to talk about because there are some very large issues,” says Robinson. “Women and men within the Black community have a common enemy. so a lot of times, I think, when people talk about some of the nuanced things that we need to get together in-house, it makes them uncomfortable.”
A close ally and friend, Dorothy Cotton was pivotal to Dr. King’s legion. Hired by Dr. King to work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the center of the civil rights movement, Cotton served as the national director of education for the conference for over 10 years. Her role training activists in nonviolent action was essential to the movement. The only woman in the executive staff for King, her story and position in the camp is rarely mentioned. Credited with typing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a Washington hotel, King’s most notable moment in history came at the hands of Cotton.
“The speech was written by a woman, but most people wouldn’t even associate woman-led leadership within that movement,” says Robinson.
As these women provided key support throughout the Civil Rights Movement, it is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who is taught in schools and throughout society. To amplify their voices and their positions in history, many believe more conversations need to be had about the position women had in the movement.
“A lot of the owness is us as Black women. As we begin to recognize that erasure is taking place, the owness is on us to really begin to combat that and to begin to talk about these women so that we don’t forget,” says Robinson.
Despite history’s account, Black women played a key part in the Civil Rights Movement while experiencing discrimination within their own race. Gender biases of the movement helped to keep the stories of some Black women at bay. Through storytelling, these women, and other unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement can be celebrated.