1/28/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Tuesday marks the first anniversary of Coretta Scott King’s death. I did not know her as a personal friend. I knew her as a civil rights worker from a respectful distance.
Where Rosa Parks was thrust into history almost by accident when she found herself too tired to move to the back of a Montgomery bus where blacks were legally supposed to sit, Mrs. King routinely chose to put herself in harm’s way by marching with her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and other protesters in some of the most racist and dangerous places in America during the Jim Crow era.
I met Mrs. King for the first time in the summer of 1964, when I had finished my freshman year at a college in Texas and had signed up as a student organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I went to Atlanta with several other Texas students. In Atlanta, we joined other students from historically black colleges in the South, and we all spent a week learning how to register voters, protest peacefully and submit to police arrests.
Mrs. King and the wives of other SCLC officials greeted us in Atlanta and ate dinner with us. Although I did not get within 20 feet of Mrs. King, her dignity awed me. She was beautiful. Her facial features manifested strength and a special calm. She smiled a knowing smile and looked you straight in the eye.
I sensed then that Mrs. King was long-suffering, a trait that would come to define her life after her husband was killed in 1968. All of us quickly learned to address Martin Luther King as “Martin.” But none of us addressed Coretta Scott King as “Coretta.” She was “Mrs. King,” always.
I met Mrs. King several more times over the years as an SCLC staff member and later as a journalist.
My lifelong respect for Mrs. King began in earnest in 1965, during the march from Selma to Montgomery, which gave impetus to the voting rights laws that would come soon afterward.
What I remember most is Mrs. King’s calm demeanor and her controlled body language as she marched at her husband’s side. None of us knew what would happen as we walked. I was scared for my personal safety, and I feared that a bullet would come out of nowhere and kill Mrs. King or her husband.
We learned later that Mrs. King was afraid for the safety of all protesters. She was especially afraid for her husband’s safety. She did not request special services or special treatment. She simply was one of what we referred to as the “foot soldiers” during the historic march.
Later, as rumors spread that Martin Luther King was having affairs, my respect for Mrs. King grew. I, along with many other staff members, came to see her as a saintly woman. I heard her speak in public many times during those years, but she always was the perfect picture of dignity and loyalty.
And later, after her husband is said to have told her of the affairs, she carried on in that stoical manner that endeared her to many and perplexed others. And after her husband’s death, she embraced his memory and his cause even more fervently.
She could have retired from public life and simply cared for her four children. But she became a freedom warrior in her own right, fighting for a national holiday honoring her husband, building a center in his name in Atlanta and advising two U.S. presidents.
Before the stroke and heart attack that took her life, Mrs. King continued to speak publicly on issues such as violence, racism, hunger, voting rights and unemployment – issues that mock the major themes of the landmark “I Have a Dream” speech.
Although I did not know Mrs. King as a personal friend, I got close enough to her and saw her in action often enough to know that I was in the presence of true dignity.