The Nonviolence of Coretta Scott King
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On this week’s Peace of History:
Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and some of us will have next Monday off in his remembrance. Dr. King’s legacy is vast, almost mythic, but like most of us, Dr. King’s own analysis of nonviolence, racism, war, and nuclear disarmament developed with the encouragement of others..
The first thing that must be stated is that it was not Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but Coretta Scott King who was first and foremost active in the anti-war and anti-nuclear arms movements, long before she met Dr. King. While a student at Antioch College (class of ’51) Coretta met Marjorie Swann through their mutual work with the NAACP. Marj and Bob Swann and their children lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio in the late 1940s and early 1950s as Bob pursued his interest in alternative economics. Coretta had many interests in common with Marj, who was already involved in the Civil Rights (Marj was a charter member of Congress of Racial Equality in 1942) and Anti-War movements (a pacifist, she worked for the National Committee on Conscientious Objection during World War II and joined the Peacemakers in the late 1940s). They stayed in touch throughout their lives.
After WWII, Coretta Scott -- along with other soon-to-be prominent women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Shirley Chrisholm, Ertha Kitt, and more -- was a part of a new generation of African-American women joining groups like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Women Strike for Peace (WSP). Although Martin was familiar with the nonviolence movement when they first met, it was Coretta who helped him connect racism, colonialism, and war as all part of the same problem. Coretta also seemed to have inspired his commitment to nonviolence -- while he was still considering the concept as merely a strategic tool, she had already adopted nonviolence as a way of life.
Last week’s post highlighted a pivotal meeting between the great organizer Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The conversations the two had that evening in 1957 seemed to have reaffirmed the values of Coretta, and further advanced Dr. King’s understanding of nonviolence. Indeed, Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King worked alongside each other in the anti-war movement. In June 1965, both served as featured speakers at one of the first protests against the war in Vietnam, urging the crowd of 18,000 to nonviolent action and leading a march through New York City. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, both were some of the most important anti-war organizers, vigorously arguing that the racism that fuels violence within the United States is the same racism that fuels violence the United States perpetrates outside of its borders. They connected the black liberation movement in the South to the anti-war movement in the North, and trail-blazed the path that Dr. King would follow in his last years. As early as the spring of 1965, to an audience at Howard University, Dr. King publicly denounced the war in Vietnam. Afterward, he told reporters, “War had always been a negative concept, but nuclear weapons made it totally unacceptable.”
Next week, we will closely examine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered in 1967. Until then, we will leave you this week with a quote from that famous speech:
'I am convinced that [...] we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values[...]
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood[…]
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.'
Vincent J. Intondi. African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Stanford University Press, 2015.
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