Coretta Scott King, a kitchen table, and the Civil Rights Movement
Coretta Scott King died last week. But the ongoing “dream” she shared with her husband Martin Luther King, Jr. of a more generous nation for all people and for a beloved community of witness to redeeming love has not died. Far from it. The “dream” lives on, because both Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. anchored their faith in the power of a reconciling God.
In the early days of the civil rights movement, when the Montgomery Bus Boycott stirred racial tensions and violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced a profound conversion in the kitchen of his home. How fitting that was. At home, the crucible of faith for the civil rights movement was shared by a husband and a wife.
Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prayer at the kitchen table:
”Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing courage. Now, I am afraid….The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter….” Martin Luther King The Auto-biography of Martin Luther King ed. by Clayborne Carson
As he prayed alone in the silent kitchen, King heard a voice saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.” “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
That same voice and faith gave Coretta Scott King courage through the years also. She needed enormous courage and faith to keep on, keeping on.
A few years ago, I was present at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Sunday. Worshiping in the Horizon Church, across the street from the original Ebenezer was inspiring. Coretta Scott King welcomed the congregation that day with warm words and a reflection on Martin Luther King’s legacy. The Dream was very much alive that day!
And it all gained courage and strength at a kitchen table where Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin and their family shared meals and grace together.
Growing up in the South, in North Carolina, I had many occasions to experience the need for the Civil Rights Movement and the beloved community. After school each day during my elementary days, I would catch a bus downtown with some of my classmates on Wednesdays for mid-week church activities. Riding the bus downtown, we white kids always sat at the front of the bus, while blacks who got aboard always made their way to the back of the bus. When we got off the bus downtown, we walked past movie theatres where there was an entrance posted for black seating in the balcony section. Many days we stopped at Woolworths Department Store to get a coke at the lunch counter. Blacks had separate seating. Water fountains were marked for white or for black. Daily reminders of separate, but far from equal treatment.
During my high school years in the late 1960s, integration came to our schools, changing much of life. I remember in my home room class sitting next to Jewell Edwards, a black student whose father was Dr. C.R. Edwards, pastor of the largest black church in town.
Jewell was such a fun loving and delightful friend. I am amazed thinking back on it how much courage she had to be part of the first generation of black students in our high school. A couple of years later, her father preached at my own church in a joint service of our white church and Jewell’s church.
The dream started with courage at a kitchen table, where Dr. King faced his own fear and lack of courage. It was a table he shared with Coretta Scott King. Really it’s fitting that King’s prayer and renewed trust in the presence of Jesus came at that kitchen table.
Jesus still meets us at a table where he offers us the meal that signifies his death and resurrection. It’s a table where all God’s children still are called to gather and to overcome their divisions. We come to the table as members of the beloved community.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Charles Marsh titled The Beloved Community:
How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today.
As a fellow Southerner, Marsh offers an acknowledgement that I affirm:
“It occurred to me several years ago that if you are a southerner, white, and Christian- and I am all of those- you owe the credibility of your faith to the courage and conviction of your black brothers and sisters. Without their witness, your own religious claims ring hollow; without their sacrifices, your piety become self-referential and shrill; and without their devotion, your pursuit of holiness lacks the scrutiny of historical contrast that prepares the way for repentance and revival.” (p. 217)
Those thoughts ring true in my experience.