Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Carmen Ejogo
Coretta Scott King spoke out in favor of equal rights for the LGBTQ community when she could have damaged her position in her church and community. Her support was lambasted by some African-American pastors, but she was defiant and called her critics “misinformed” and said that Martin Luther King Jr.’s message was one of equality and inclusion.
I’m Carmen Ejogo, and I had the honor of portraying Coretta Scott King twice, in the television movie Boycott and in the feature film Selma.
Following her husband’s death, she founded and developed programs for The King Center in Atlanta, which trains people in Dr. King’s philosophy and methods, and contains the largest archive of documents from the U.S. civil rights movement. She led the enormous lobbying and education effort that led to the federal holiday on the birthday of Dr. King. She was a strong anti-war advocate and a leader in campaigning on behalf of poor people and economic justice.
King’s first public foray into the gay rights movement happened during her leadership of the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. She pledged her support for amending the Civil Rights Act to protect lesbians and gays as a protected class of people.
She quoted her late husband who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and she advocated for inclusion and a broad coalition of civil rights causes:
“I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people. Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”
Ms. King spoke out against a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and reminded the public that “gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil unions.”
In the 1980s, King comforted gay friends with AIDS and with help from her assistant Lynn Cothren, an openly gay man, she created a welcoming environment at The King Center and used their resources to educate the local community about the disease.
In a 1999 speech to launch an AIDS Memorial Quilt initiative for historically black colleges and universities, she named AIDS as “one of the most deadly killers of African-Americans. And I think anyone who sincerely cares about the future of Black America had better be speaking out.”
She reminded audiences that AIDS was far from only a disease afflicting gay people. King spoke at both the U.S. Conference on AIDS and HIV Prevention Leadership Summit. When one of her close gay friends died, she hosted his family and friends for a day of sewing stitches on a panel that would become part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Coretta Scott King passed away in 2006. As a fitting tribute to her advocacy for justice, respect and love for all people, the crypt where she is buried at The King Center is inscribed with this passage from Corinthians 13:13:
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”