My friend Barbara Winslow sent me a note today that I found fascinating: she just got back from Coretta Scott King's memorial service. I found her account much more interesting than anything I read in the newspaper:
I've just returned from the memorial service for Coretta Scott King. I was part of an official delegation from Antioch College, which was both her and my alma mater.
I was quite moved by the experience, the strong sense of being a part of the best of the history of the US.
Mrs. King went to Antioch in the late 1940’s, and like many of us who went there, found it a transformative experience. In an article for the Urban League she wrote in 1948, she said:
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to go to college. My parents are Negroes, respectable but poor, who live in Heiberger, Alabama. I found early in life that being respectable did not necessarily bring respect—not in my home town.
Those few African Americans in Heiberger who had college degrees (and who were invariably school teachers), had greater freedom of movement; they went on trips; they knew more about the world. Although I knew they were not paid high salaries, they knew many different kinds of people; they could talk with pleasure about a lot of different subjects; they enjoyed books and music. They were aware of the need for improving the political status of the Negro in the South.
My decision of where to go to college was pretty much taken out of my hands. My older sister was attending Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when it was time for me to go to college; and I was offered an inter-racial scholarship by the Race Relations Committee of that institution. I came north with a great deal of doubt about the wisdom of doing so and with a great deal of fear that I wouldn’t be able to fit into the very different environment.
Now I can be wise after the fact. It seems to me now that every Negro student in the South ought to try to get some of his education in the North if at all possible…It seems to me important to find out that there really are some white people working for racial equality and to be able to work with them. I’ve learned something from them; they’ve learned something from me.
Coretta Scott King’s life is often described as how her partnership with King was the transformative experience of her life. The reality was, she was already imbued with radical politics and involved in radical organizations before she met Martin Luther King Jr.
As she told us in 2004— when she was honored by our college with our Horace Mann Award— at the time she was dating King, she asked him, "How could he have such radical ideas when he hadn’t gone to Antioch?"
[Barbara also told me that Coretta wasn't only a political activist, but also an accomplished singer, a music major, who sang with Paul Robeson... I didn't know that!)
I am sure many of you have read news stories about the memorial, or have seen parts of it. Being there was a totally different experience.
For one, there was a REAL sense of community. Almost everywhere we went in the short visit, people were talking about Mrs. King. The memorial was overwhelmingly African American. The section reserved for the presidents and the Congress were the only white delegations. They were all situated in the center, but surrounded by the sea of mainly Atlantan African Americans.
I went thinking, "How could I be in a room with Bush and not scream, yell, and get arrested?" Fortunately, the speakers at the memorial did more than one or two protestors could ever do.
Jimmy Carter, one of our most ineffective presidents, brought the crowd to its feet when he spoke about Katrina, government racism, and indifference. By referring to the illegal wiretapping of MLK, he attacked Bush for his illegal wiretapping.
The mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin – I would vote for her for ANYTHING— gave a rousing call to honor Coretta’s legacy of peace, nonviolence, opposition to war, support for women and (yes) gay rights.
Joseph Lowry was the most blistering of all, and everyone thumped and cheered when he spoke about "no weapons of mass destruction, but lies of misinformation." ˙He took up the call of the memorial the night before, and warned people that what counts is people’s deeds, not words. It was the best attack on Bush’s criminal administration.
Ted Kennedy gave the most authentic eulogy. It was heartfelt, and from deep inside his family’s legacy to civil rights. We all thought, that when Kennedy goes, a whole generation goes. And one sensed that in his speech.
There was a film clip of events in Coretta's life, and while not mentioning Antioch, we saw the pictures of her there, including one with Steve Schwerner. There was a memorable clip of her on Oprah after having had a ‘make-over.’ It was warmly hilarious, and I had an even greater insight into Oprah’s ability to connect so well.
But the last clip was King’s last interview. It was on the Tavis Smiley show, and he asked her how could she still believe in non-violence when there were people like Osama Bin Laden and organizations like Al Queda. She replied, “If America were more socially just, there wouldn’t be Osama Bin Ladens.”
And on a gossip note: The memorial event the night before was the real fire and brimstone- a combination of Jesus and political activism with Reverend Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, and John Lewis, excoriating Bush and calling upon people not to let Coretta and the civil rights movement be incorporated into Republican revisionist history.
At the BIG memorial, Bush Jr.‘s speech, riddled with religiosity, fell flat; his father saved him with a bunch of jokes. You know things are bad when Bush Sr. is funny. Carter was boring, but political.
And then one gets to Clinton... He was greeted like the rock star of all rock stars – the Beatles, Oprah, the Rolling Stones, or the stars of the NBA- everyone rolled into one. The house rocked when he walked in, and the house rocked when he got up to speak. If any of you have been to an event with Clinton, you know what I mean, but this was so over-the-top amazing. Hillary Clinton also spoke, but I thought she was somewhat cold and ungenerous— I know people may disagree with me on that.
I was very moved and proud to be a part of this. Coretta Scott King was a combatant (to use Joseph Lowry’s words) in the struggle for civil rights, she saw herself as a feminist, in opposition to homophobia (and a number of people spoke to this) and became, on her own, an extraordinary, yet always dignified (which good women should always be) and force for good.
Having spent a day surrounded by extraordinary eloquence, this is the best I can do!