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The Death of Coretta Scott King

The news media are buzzing with stories about the passing of Coretta Scott King. In 2003, Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan and John Warner, Republican from Virginia, introduced legislation to award the congressional medal of honor to Ms. King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Levin's press release for the event contained the following description. . . .

Mrs. Correta Scott King [sic] joined her husband in his lifework and has continued his legacy to this day. Like Dr. King, Mrs. King was a leader in our country's civil rights movement, striving through nonviolent means to promote social change and attain full civil rights for African-Americans and other discriminated people. Mrs. King worked to preserve Dr. King's memory and ideals by, among other things, developing and building the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, establishing the "Freedom Concerts" organization to increase awareness of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and leading a campaign to recognize Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday. Mrs. King's continuing contributions to our nation also merit her receipt of this award.

I can't help but wonder how being the steward of "Dr. King's memory and ideals" created both opportunities and problems for Ms. Coretta Scott King. I don't doubt that for those who knew her and were changed by her direct advocacy for civil rights, she had an identity distinct from her husband. (We must at least assume that they knew how to spell her first name). But what about the rest of the nation? Can we imagine Coreta Scott King without the "Mrs." in front of her name? Should the answer to that question bother us?

I also wonder if her public struggles with King's memory and advocacy don't shed light on the struggles of the post-King Civil Rights Movement, generally. The details of her advocacy since 1968 might tell us a great deal about how the modern black civil rights movement is both constrained and empowered by the haunting specter of Dr. King.