Coretta Scott King & Properly Recognizing Black Women

Among the many events in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. day, we wanted to add by discussing someone who does not get enough credit for her role in the Civil Rights Movement beyond her support of Dr. King - Coretta Scott King. We reflect on Coretta Scott King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, and encourage you to learn about other women leaders erased from this movement such as Diane Nash and Dorothy Height, in a continuing conversation on being allies to Black women. We take time to recognize the multiplicity of Black women’s lives, by discussing the erasure of Black women and honoring that Coretta Scott King “was never just a wife, nor a widow. [She] was always more than a label.”

Reflect: Why don’t we hear about the contributions of Black women?

The work of Black women is all too often ignored and/or uncredited, despite often being at the forefront of significant intellectual, political, and artistic movements (Asare, 2021; Dastagir, 2018). This erasure begins early on (Haynes et al., 2016) and continues into adulthood, as Black women’s abilities are downplayed/undervalued because of bias (Calaza et al., 2021), not adequately compensated (National Partnership for Women & Families, 2021), and not equitably promoted or supported (Hunter-Gadsden, 2018; Lean In, 2021). Another issue is that this erasure removes the context in which Black women live and work – dealing with gendered and racialized discrimination. When we erase the contributions of Black women, not only are we contributing to the racist and patriarchal legacy the seeks to diminish Black women, we are also denying the reality of the emotional labor that such work requires (Kelly et al., 2021; Yeboah, 2021). This erasure of Black women is evident in Coretta Scott King’s strong, far-reaching activism frequently being connected only to her marriage.

Learn: Coretta Scott King’s Legacy of Activism

Coretta Scott was born in 1927 in Alabama. Scott graduated high school as valedictorian and went on to study music at Antioch College, where she served in the local NAACP chapter and Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees. After completing an additional degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory in Boston (where she met and married Dr. King), the couple moved to Montgomery, AL. In the following years, the couple began appearing on the (inter)national stage to fight for justice as the Civil Rights Movement gained prominence. During this time, Mrs. King was vocal about the exclusion of women in the Civil Rights Movement and a prominent speaker on issues of peace and equity, becoming the first woman to deliver Harvard’s Class Day address and regularly appearing as the only woman speaker at anti-war rallies (Dr. King later said "she educated me" about anti-war advocacy). Over the years, the King family grew such that Mrs. King stayed at home to raise their children, where she battled a constant danger from white supremacists targeting their home. After Dr. King’s assassination, Mrs. King continued their vision of justice – including building The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, forming the Full Employment Action Council, rallying against the South African apartheid system, advocating for AIDS education, and more – until her death in 2006.

Change: Supporting Black Women Now

  • Intentionally and properly cite Black women: When we discuss celebrating the work of Black women, academic citation is often the first thing people think of. While citation in the sense of reading and integrating the work of Black women scholars is an important practice to honoring Black women and destabilizing exclusionary citation practices (Ray, 2018; Smith et al., 2021), we also take citation to mean intentionally recognizing the work of Black women outside of scholarship. If you see professional awards, opportunities, or promotions, consider nominating Black women colleagues, peers, or students who do not normally get recognized. Go out of your way to amplify the thoughts and contributions of Black women in your classroom, office, and/or personal life and call out when Black women are interrupted, ignored, or written off.
  • Develop strong emotional support skills: Black women often experience emotional strain from having to deal with daily gendered and racialized experiences while also facing the negative aspects of the Strong Black Woman stereotype, leading to outcomes like emotional suppression, depression, and anxiety (Donovan & West, 2014; Nelson et al., 2016; West et al., 2016; Woods-Giscombé, 2010); however, research suggests that perceived emotional support can mediate this stress (Watson-Singleton, 2017). We can begin the process of recognizing Black women by developing relationships that promote emotional vulnerability, do not have expectations about educating us on racism/sexism, and validate the multifaceted, layered nature of their lives. These relationships start by including Black women in informal gatherings, checking in with them regularly (not just when you see news of another case of violence Black people), and fervently supporting their desires/pursuits. These relationships also mean being consistently accountable in unpacking our bias, including where we might fail as allies and friends.