Coretta Scott King Memorial
It is a great honor to have this opportunity to remember and pay tribute to Mrs. King.
She was a great leader, a champion of human rights worldwide and a woman whose work and life — dedicated to civil rights, peace, and justice over many decades — gave her a moral voice and position from which to speak, all the more powerful and appreciated because of how rare a voice like hers is in our society. How rare it is for leaders to transcend the boundaries of any one movement or community and speak to a broader and higher vision of what we could be!
But Mrs. King did just that. This took not only great vision, but great strength and courage as well, and a willingness to be misunderstood, and to be criticized at times by her opponents, friends, even family. In her characteristic way, she neither backed down nor escalated, noting, more kindly than many of us would, that her critics were "misinformed."
Mrs. King spoke up for human rights in a wide range of ways, but most specifically for many of us, and what brings us together tonight, was her willingness to publicly include lesbian and gay people in her vision of a just society, to remind people of the full scope and meaning of Dr. King's words, and to carry this through, not only on the perhaps easier-to-address issues like employment discrimination, but right up through the one that causes so many of our "friends" to stumble — often badly still, today. As Mrs. King said several years ago, cutting to the heart of the matter, "A constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages is a form of gay bashing."
I first met Mrs. King in 1998 when she gave a keynote civil rights lecture at an event marking Lambda Legal's 25th anniversary. A huge crowd turned out to hear her, and, needless to say, she did not disappoint. She spoke eloquently about LGBT people and human rights. I want to share with you some of her remarks from that day, so you can hear her own words.
"For many years now, I have been an outspoken supporter of civil and human rights for gay and lesbian people. I've always felt that homophobic attitudes and policies were unjust and unworthy of a free society and must be opposed by all Americans who believe in democracy."
And, "As an African-American woman, I am concerned about discrimination against my race and gender. But it's just not good enough to support human rights for one's own race or culture and then be silent about injustices to other groups. As long as that's all we do, our successes will be limited, and we will be working against each other instead of with each other."
And, "I've made the decision that I'm not going to put up with homophobic bigotry because it's morally wrong and because it lowers human rights standards for everyone."
And finally, "I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people. Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the civil rights movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions."
As you can imagine, she brought down the house.
But there is another story I want to tell from that day — and those of you who knew her will not be surprised by it — that I think is important to a fuller picture of Mrs. King as a leader and a person, a picture of her warmth and her humanity.
After her speech, essentially everyone there wanted to meet her. The receiving line circled around the room, down the hall and onto the stairs. And she stayed, and stayed, well into the afternoon, until she had greeted and shaken hands with and heard everyone in that line. It was clear that she knew how much it meant to people to have a chance to meet her, to thank her for her leadership, and, in some cases, to tell her long involved stories (I couldn't always follow them, but she was gracious) and she did not, would not, disappoint them.
While we, as LGBT people, often take comfort in her words and her messages of inclusion and justice, in her honor and her memory we shouldn't let ourselves off too easily. Mrs. King's example and legacy, is, like Dr. King's, as much a challenge to us, to our movement, as it is to our opponents. A challenge to work broadly for human rights, as she did, remembering when she said: "It's just not good enough to support human rights for one's own race or culture and then be silent about injustices to other groups." Race and economics, gender and sexual orientation, peace and justice, her message was one of human rights for all.
So as we go forward with our work and our lives, I hope we will all remember Coretta Scott King as the remarkable woman and leader that she was, remember her words and her work, and challenge ourselves always to try to live up to her example, her vision of what we, and the world, could be.
This is what her memory deserves.