Walking alone through “Trill” after class one afternoon, I spotted a friend of a friend. Not wanting to do my usual newspaper in one hand / sandwich in the other solo routine, I asked if I could join her and her lunch date. We soon became engulfed in a most peculiar conversation, not peculiar because the topic was something I haven’t heard before, but because it was refreshingly beyond the realm of superficial dialogue about weekend plans and never ending homework that you usually have with someone you don’t know too well. We began discussing the future, a common topic among college students, yet I was caught off guard by my associate’s candid frankness and honesty. She admitted to not knowing what she wanted to do in life, but revealed in earnest, “I don’t wanna die without people knowing my name.”
As Lloyd Dobbler so eloquently explained in Say Anything, many young people, including myself, are waiting for their “dare to be great situation.” Yet most of the time we need not find our dare to be great scenario. It finds us. And when it does, we’re often right where we need to be for life to take its course. We can walk away from the challenge or not listen to our gut reaction and impulse, but in our heart of hearts we know what it is we are meant to do. And that is how we will be remembered, by the measure of our integrity in that pivotal moment, when everything matters and not a second can be wasted. The world has lost several exceptional human beings who had the courage and tenacity to rise to the occasion, who did what they did not because it would inevitably bring them fame and prestige, but because at that moment it seemed right to press forward, take that leap, and seek change. Rosa Parks, celebrated crusader for civil rights, Betty Friedan, author of the Feminine Mystique and an uncompromising leader in the women’s rights movement, and Lou Rawls, soul singer turned education advocate who founded the Parade of Stars Telethon to raise money for the United Negro College Fund, immediately come to mind. Last week the entire nation and international community celebrated the life and work of yet another, Coretta Scott King.
Coretta Scott was on fellowship to study voice at the New England Conservatory in Boston when she met her soon to be husband, Martin Luther King Jr. The two married and moved back to the South where Dr. King presided over the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Quiet married life did not last long as the young couple soon found themselves in the midst of the civil rights movement after Dr. King’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott stirred by Rosa Parks. Dr. King quickly became the foremost civil rights leader in the country for his increased efforts against segregation, although the cause was not only his to bear. Their union was a shared experience, for as Mrs. King remembers in an interview quote published in the New York Times, “I didn’t learn my commitment from Martin, We just converged at a certain time.” During their time together, Mrs. King was involved in a number of demonstrations, survived a bombing of the King’s home, and sang at fundraisers and “Freedom Concerts.” She was a constant by her husband’s side at rallies and marches, on a visit to Ghana to witness the African nation’s ground-breaking independence, and on a voyage to India to meet with Mahatma Gandhi.
Mrs. King was the mother of four small children when she lost her husband to violence in 1968. But she forged on with an unparalleled dignity and grace, continuing to fight for the cause that ended her partner’s life so abruptly and prematurely. I don’t think any of us can understand the immense gravity of Mrs. King’s decision to persevere and combat hate and prejudice with the very message of peace that cost Dr. King his life.
Over the years Mrs. King fought tirelessly in her late husband’s name against racism, poverty, homophobia, and gender inequality. She worked to create the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday that we have celebrated since 1986, and to establish the ambitious Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta Georgia. She was a presence at monumental world events, including the end of apartheid and the inauguration of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. In the moment she decided to press onward for civil rights and promote the remembrance of her husband’s legacy, she in effect created her own.