Wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. advocated
inclusion of the GLBT community in human rights projects
Coretta Scott King, an early champion of GLBT rights and the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., is dead at the age of 78.
King, who suffered a heart attack and a stroke in 2005, died of respiratory failure at an alternative clinic in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. She never fully recovered from her illness last year, and she made her last public appearance last month at a celebration at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.
Lynn Cothren, who is gay and was King’s personal assistant for 23 years, said the GLBT community lost a great friend with her death.
“I think the gay and lesbian community has lost one of the strongest voices from that civil rights era that came out early and stayed with us throughout our struggle,” said Cothren, who left her employ about a year ago and now works in New York. “And she brought so many people along to think differently about us as people and our issues.”
Cothren said he also feels a tremendous personal loss in life with King’s death. They had remained in close contact, and he saw her at the King Center celebration last month, he said.
“I have lost one of my best friends and greatest heroes,” Cothren said.” She was a phenomenal woman.”
Cothren said he first met King when he was 19 and serving an internship while he was in college and studying art. He grew up in Fayetteville, Tenn., and met King in 1982 when he started working with her.
“I really believed in what she was about so I gave up my career in art and pursued a career working for people,” Cothren said.
National gay rights leaders lamented King’s passing also. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said King performed her role carrying on her husband’s legacy with “enormous grace and strength.”
“She saw justice as a birthright and lent her voice as a relentless advocate for all fair-minded Americans, gay or straight, black or white,” Solmonese said. “We join the nation in mourning the loss of a great hero and give enormous gratitude for all that she’s left behind.”
Local gay rights leaders also noted King’s passing.
“I think it is a huge loss for our community,” said Erin Moore, president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance. “She was an outspoken, compassionate and authoritative voice against discrimination and injustice against the gay community. She likened it to racism and anti-Semitism in her speeches. In the African-American community she was one of the strongest and loudest voices for rights for everyone.”
King recalled her husband’s words when she spoke on the importance of civil rights for gay and lesbian people.
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people, and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” she said in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, “‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
King supported a federal bill prohibiting anti-gay discrimination, and she spoke out against the anti-gay federal marriage amendment.
She was an early champion of fledgling gay rights groups such as the National Gay Lesbian Rights Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign, Cothren said. She was one of the first to speak at a Human Rights Campaign function in the 1980s, he said.
“She gave all of the organizations an opportunity to grow by coming to share her support,” Cothren said.
Twenty years ago, she insisted that gay and lesbian people be included in the 20th anniversary March on Washington, Cothren said.
“Voices said that they do not need to have a place here, and she said, “‘No, they will have a place here.’” Cothren said. “She made sure that would happen.
“She didn’t do things like that because she was pressured to do it. She always did it because they were on the right side of social justice,” he said.
Cothren said he suspects many gay and lesbian people are unaware of how supportive she was of the gay rights movement. The gay media seldom seemed to pay much attention to her supportive efforts, he said.
“They didn’t pay much attention when she would do things that were really vanguard at the time, and nobody else was doing it,” he said.
Cothren said he hopes more gay and lesbian people will become aware of King’s contributions to the community.
“I think we all carry on Mrs. King’s work, just like Mrs. King carried on Dr. King’s work,” Cothren said. “Mrs. King set a great example for us as people. She certainly was my great teacher. I can’t say that I will ever do anything in life without thinking what would Mrs. King think, how would Mrs. King do it?”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of February 3, 2006