Coretta Scott King: Unshakeable Faith

By Kingkongphoto & from Laurel Maryland, USA – Coretta Scott King © copyright 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Like the Robesons, the Kings had a marriage based on love—for each other and for racial equality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta gained recognition in her own right as a pillar of the civil rights movement. A talented musician, Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927 and was educated at Antioch, where she got a degree in music and elementary education and was exposed to whites in a very different environment than the South, learning a great deal about techniques to foster interracial communication. In 1953, she married Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both college students, and they pursued a life together, her music—she got a higher degree at the New England Conservatory of Music—and his theological degree. From a long line of ministers, Martin felt a call to become a pastor, a decision that found the young couple moving to Montgomery, Alabama, after their education. They had their first of four children in their first year at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became deeply involved in the actions of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride. As the footage shows, Coretta was right beside Martin at every protest, fighting for the rights of all African Americans. She also participated in fundraising for the movement by giving more than thirty concerts in Europe and the United States to raise money for Martin’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Kings traveled extensively in their work—to Ghana, to India, to Nigeria, and in 1964, to Norway to receive Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, the world watched in horror as Martin was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, during a garbage workers strike. Coretta didn’t shrink from the work at hand and led a protest in Memphis four days later with her children at her side. Her quiet dignity captured the nation; that year she was voted Woman of the Year and Most Admired Woman by college students.

From that fateful day, Coretta stepped forward and took up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement, which she shared with the young Jesse Jackson. Coretta amazed everyone with her stamina and heart as she made speech after speech and led march after march. She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts in her lifetime. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change and has also led the attention of the nation into new directions, organizing antiwar protests, antinuclear and anti-apartheid lobbies, and employment for African Americans. More than 100 colleges have given her honorary doctorates. Coretta Scott King has never hesitated to give herself to the struggle for freedom and justice, viewing it as both “a privilege” and “a blessing.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Maya Angelou: How the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelo
By York College ISLGP –, CC BY 2.0, Link

Marguerite Johnson’s childhood was marked by the hardship of the Depression years in which she grew up. Her parents divorced and packed her off to live with her granny, “Momma” Henderson, who eked out a living in Stamps, Arkansas, running a little general store. Marguerite, known as Maya, attended church devotedly with Momma who gave her stability and taught her the importance of values and a strong work ethic. The young girl found love and roots from her grandmother and the congregation at their church.

But tragedy struck when she visited her mother in St. Louis for eight months. Her mother had a boyfriend who spent a lot of time at her mother’s house and often touched and hugged the seven-year-old much, but, in her innocence, she mistook it for a father’s love. Later, he raped her and Maya felt guilty and responsible for his jailing and subsequent death at the hands of other inmates who exacted their own brand of justice on a child molester. She became catatonic as a result of this onslaught of catastrophic violence. With the support of her family and an adult friend, Bertha Flowers, who introduced her to literature, Maya gradually reentered the world, speaking after five years and graduating first in her eighth grade class.

Maya and her mother then moved to San Francisco where her mother ran a boardinghouse and worked as a professional gambler. Maya met many colorful characters among the boarders and threw herself into school where she flourished. She got pregnant at sixteen and took on the full responsibilities of motherhood with the birth of her son, Guy. For a few years, Maya walked on the wild side: working a Creole restaurant, waitressing a bar in San Diego, even an accidental and brief stint as a madam for two lesbian prostitutes. After a two-year marriage to a white man, Maya started dancing at the Purple Onion and got into show biz in the road show for “Porgy and Bess,” which toured Africa and Europe. After cowriting “Cabaret for Freedom” with Godfrey Cambridge for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Maya drew Martin Luther King’s attention for her talent and contribution to the civil rights movement, and he invited her to serve as an SCLC coordinator.

Maya’s career was absolutely astonishing after this point, living in Egypt with Guy and her lover, a South African freedom fighter, and working in Ghana writing for The African Review. She remained involved with the theater, writing and performing in plays, acting in Roots, and writing several volumes of poetry as well as the script and music for the movie of her autobiography. But it is for the six best-selling volumes of her autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that she will go down in literary history. (The New York Times called her “one of the geniuses of Afro-American serial autobiography.”) Written with captivating honesty, color, and verve, they are read by youth and adults alike for their inspirational message. Listen to this powerful passage from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rest on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” When she was criticized for not being completely factual as a writer, Maya responded, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.”

Maya Angelou, a name combined from a nickname her brother called her and a variation on her first husband’s name, truly reinvented herself. No moment in her wonderfully colorful life illustrates this as much as her reading of her beautiful poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She had come a long way from the scared and silent little seven-year-old to a woman come fully into her power, unafraid to share that with the world.

“The ability to control one’s own destiny…comes from constant hard work and courage.” —Maya Angelou

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.