If you want to understand the full breadth of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you need to appreciate two aspects that often don’t get the attention they deserve: The role of his wife, Coretta Scott King, as Martin Luther King’s partner in activism, and the importance both of them attached to the pursuit of social justice beyond a narrower definition of civil rights.
That was an overall theme of a lecture on Martin Luther King’s legacy at Eckstein Hall on Jan. 25 by Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, and one of the foremost experts on the King family’s work. Carson has authored several books about the civil rights era and, in 1985, was asked by Coretta Scott King to edit and publish authoritative editions of her husband’s speeches, sermons, and other writing. That led to seven volumes of the papers of King.
Carson’s talk was part of a series of events at Marquette in observance of King’s birthday. The lecture was sponsored by Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries; the Marquette Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach; the Marquette Center for Peacemaking; and the Marquette Office for Institutional Diversity. Carson was introduced at the lecture by Daniel Myers, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and William Welburn, the university’s executive director for diversity and inclusion.
Carson recounted the courtship of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott. She was concerned that he was not sufficiently committed to the social justice issues that were important to her. In a letter to her in 1952, he outlined his views on capitalism, socialism, and the importance he gave to a wide-ranging approach to social change. Carson emphasized a passage in the latter in which King wrote, “Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”
That commitment was important to her in agreeing to come to Atlanta to meet his family – and in allowing their relationship to flourish.
Carson said that Martin Luther King emphasized civil rights for African Americans from 1955 to 1965, but remained committed to the broad agenda of issues. In the last several years before his assassination in 1968, King emphasized fighting poverty, closing economic disparities, better treatment of low income workers, and opposition to the Vietnam War. And in that period, Coretta Scott King joined him more actively in the work.
“She’s the one that shaped Martin’s legacy,” Carson said, and she continued to be an important advocate for social issues after his death.
People should take a good look at what the Kings’ legacy really is, Carson said. Equal rights for all people as citizens is pretty much resolved, he said. But Martin Luther King’s last book was titled, “Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community?” Carson said answering that question remains important. He added that at a time when there is increasing emphasis on the role of women in public life, understanding Coretta Scott King’s role in the way her husband framed and tried to answer that question is important.