Image: Coretta Scott King joined Rosalynn Carter, Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter and civil rights leaders during a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
It’s Martin Luther King Jr. day today, and God knows the man deserves a day in his honor. But, our blog is all about midlife women, so let’s also recognize two important women who advanced the civil rights movement: Coretta Scott King and Ella Baker.
Like many wives of famous men, Coretta Scott King—who died in 2006—is often identified as the wife of a famous man. But, as she said, being Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife and mother of their four children wasn’t enough for her. She had ambitions of her own, becoming a fundraiser, institution-builder, organizer and fighter for human rights around the world.
In fact, she was more of an activist than Martin Luther King Jr. was when they met—she had joined the NAACP when she was an undergraduate at Antioch College. By the time she met Martin Luther King Jr., she was a lot more interested in becoming a classical soprano than getting married. She was a scholarship student at New England Conservatory of Music! which didn’t seem compatible with marrying a man studying to be a minister at Boston University.
Flash-forward to 1957: When Martin Luther King Jr. was named the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Coretta Scott King was arguably the person who made its work possible. She organized the Freedom Concerts that raised the money to pay SCLC’s essential first staff member—Ella Baker, herself an unsung heroine of the civil rights movement—and to fund the marches and demonstrations that changed U.S. history.
Along the way, King became an in-demand activist and speaker herself. She was the first woman to give the Class Day address at Harvard University, and the first to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, among many other stand-out moments.
After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, King, naturally, was the driving force to create the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and a federal day of recognition. She formed the Full Employment Action Council, an advocacy coalition of over 100 organizations. She undertook goodwill missions to Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia. In 1983, she led the Coalition of Conscience march of 800 human rights organizations—at the time, the largest demonstration ever seen in Washington, D.C.
And those are just the highlights. Good lord, the woman was tireless! And you can see it all in pictures, too—check out this Time Magazine photo gallery published shortly her Coretta Scott King’s death in 2006.
But, wait! What about Ella Baker?
Video: Ella Baker in a radio speech. Date unknown.
Ella Baker is a prime example of a woman getting it done behind the scenes while men take the spotlight. A granddaughter of slaves, Baker was a critical figure in the Big Three of the civil rights movement — the NAACP, SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
As an NAACP field secretary and, later, acting executive director, Baker spent the 1940s persuading black citizens to join nonviolent protests and register to vote. She helped local civil rights leaders launch campaigns against lynching, advocate for job training and equal pay for black teachers. She persuaded organization members to take leadership roles—and Rosa Parks was one of her protégées. Eventually, she even became president of the New York NAACP chapter —the first woman ever in that role.
While Martin Luther King Jr. became SCLC’s first figurehead, it was Baker who framed the issues and set the group’s agenda, according to her biographers. She wasn’t afraid to argue with Martin Luther King Jr. or others—she said herself, “I was not an easy pushover.”
And, her leadership forged the SNCC (yet, somehow, Stokely Carmichael is the name everyone remembers). She was the one who organized a meeting in 1960 to bring student activists together to work as a group rather than in disjointed efforts. She trained students to leave activism initiatives themselves and to become advocates. Perhaps most important, she focused on voting rights as a primary tool for racial justice.
Baker’s behind-the-scenes brilliance has been sadly overlooked in much of the public narrative about the civil rights movement. So, it’s gratifying that, in 1996, a group of activists founded an organization named after her: the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Based in Oakland, Calif., the Ella Baker Center advocates for public policy to restore communities and reduce abusive practices in prisons and jails.