Contemporary “Sheroes” of Black History


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that he did not know where he would be without his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King: “I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength and calmness of Coretta, I could not have stood up amid the ordeals and tensions surrounding the Montgomery movement. I came to see the real meaning of that rather trite statement: ‘A wife can either make or break a husband.’ Coretta proved to be that type of wife with qualities to make a husband when he could have been so easily broken. In the darkest moments she always brought the light of hope.”

During Black History Month, I frequently think about the many unsung “sheroes” in my life… women like my mother, who made innumerable sacrifices to support the aspirations of their spouses and children and who consistently brought “light and hope” to difficult situations. I also think of the many historic and courageous women that I have had the privilege to work with and know intimately: Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Dorothy Height, Secretary Alexis Herman as well as others that I have met or known along the way: Vivian Malone Jones, Representative Barbara Jordan, Betty Shabazz, Merlie Evers, Marion Wright Edelman, Winnie Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and others. They were/are leaders whose courage, passion, strength of character, vision, determination and generosity have brought enlightenment, compassion and progress to some of our most pernicious social, moral, and public policy concerns.

All of the historic Black women that I have had the privilege to know personally, embodied what I will call the 5P’s: they were Purpose-driven, Prepared, Persistence, Prayerful, and Positive. These women consciously or unconsciously lived by the same Horace Mann mantra that I know Mrs. Coretta Scott King espoused: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind”. They knew that it is not enough to just have ideals. To be meaningful, ideals must be actualized in words and actions. Ideals are learned at home, church, or in school but they are fueled by a sense of purpose, a calling from within, or, as some believe, from God. The women that I mentioned were all purpose-driven—relentlessly motivated and compelled to act on behalf of some noble cause.

Although I could give countless important examples of “the 5 P’s” in the lives of the women that I have known, I will briefly expound only on examples in the life of Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for whom I served as Chief of Staff for seven years.

When Mrs. King was faced with the challenges of being the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the reality of being in constant danger, she was prepared. Growing up in rural Alabama, she not only learned to cook and clean, she also worked to develop herself intellectually, socially, and spiritually. She was valedictorian of her class, participated in the peace movement in high school, played piano and directed the church choir. Most importantly, she was grounded in faith and family.

Walking two miles to and from school each day, milking cows and picking more cotton than her male cousins prepared her to be physically and mentally strong. She learned to face danger with faith and courage. Her father, Obediah Scott, was one of the only Black business owners in Marion, Alabama. He received numerous death threats from whites who resented his self-sufficiency. Several of his businesses were burned to the ground and whenever he went to deliver wood on the rural back roads of Marion, Alabama, he tried to prepare his wife and family for the possibility that he would not return. And so, when faced with the challenge of becoming the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. and mother of his children, she realized that everything in her life up to that point had prepared her “for such a time as this”. Her purpose was quickly made apparent and she embraced it with determination, dedication and focus until the day that she died.



Mrs. King was persistent. She did not listen to Ambassador Andrew Young and others who thought that her dream of preserving Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent social action and having a national holiday in honor of Dr. King, was merely the imaginings of a bereaved widow. In spite of this, she persistently moved forward with determination to accomplish what no one thought was possible. If it were not for her vision and determination, we would not have the recorded voice and writings of Dr. King or a national holiday in his honor. Because of her hard work and persistence, the King Center has trained thousands of people in “Kingian nonviolence” and leaders of peace and justice movements from around the world have utilized Dr. King’s philosophy and methodology of nonviolent social change.

Finally, Mrs. King was prayerful and positive. Her faith was the foundation of her life and courage. She began and ended each day with prayer and meditation. I was fortunate enough to share this daily ritual with her whenever we traveled. Even though her life was frequently threatened, she was never afraid. As a result of prayer, she had experienced many “miracles” and, despite trials and tragedies, she steadfastly believed in God’s faithfulness. She tried to surrounded herself with people who had similar values and who had “can do” attitudes—people who found ways to do what was needed rather than find ways that something could not be done…people who were supportive rather than critical.

The early lives of all of these historic Black women were no different than yours or mine. Their lives included opportunities and limitations, inspiration and disappointment, favor and sacrifice, joy and sorrow. They did not spend their lives brooding or complaining about the occasional or even persistent disappointments and criticisms. They used each formative life experience as a stepping stone to the discovery of God’s purpose in their lives. They realized that each experience prepared them for the next and, ultimately, for their unique contribution to humanity. Their mothers, or some significant person in their lives, taught them that adversity builds character and that character is expressed in committed service to others which, in turn, provides an opportunity for each of us to make a contribution to our community, nation, and world—to the “Beloved Community” of humankind of which Dr. King dreamed.

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