By Erick Johnson, Crusader Newspaper Group
The buses were empty and the crowds began filling up Holy Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was rising to prominence with a bus boycott that would last 381 days. King and his regal wife, Coretta Scott King, expected Holy Street Baptist Church would be half full during King’s speech. As it turned out, the church was not only filled to capacity, but thousands of Blacks flooded the streets for five blocks to hear the young Black Baptist speak for 20 minutes.
Fresh from giving birth to her firstborn, Yolanda, Coretta stayed home following her doctor’s advice. Coretta arranged to have the speech taped in what may have been the seed for an institution that would be known all over the world.
Nearly 25 years later, her famous husband was dead. One fatal gunshot on April 4, 1968 turned Coretta into a single mother who despite her prominence had little money to raise four children by herself. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took away her children’s father and left her alone in a country that despite laws, marches, lunch counter sit-ins and boycotts, still treated Blacks as inferior and second-class citizens.
When America’s greatest civil rights leader was murdered at just 39 years old, Blacks in Chicago and the nation made America feel their pain and anger in over 100 riots that ripped through cities across the land.
As a widow, Coretta buried her husband as she and Black America questioned whether the government was behind King’s assassination instead of James Earl Ray.
Amid her grief and loneliness, Coretta, a poised classical singer and leader in her own right, 50 years ago decided to build an institution that carries King’s dream of racial equality and harmony in a country where ethnic tensions are still prevalent.
Many remember what happened on April 4, 1968, but few know what took place two months later on June 26, 1968. On that date, the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change was established. The nonprofit institution not only taught King’s message to future generations, but it also cast a spotlight on Coretta, a Black woman who shouldered a movement and family in the shadows of a male-dominated Civil Rights Movement.
This year, the world will mark the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King with tributes, marches and dedications to the civil rights leader who was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Without the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King’s dream perhaps would not be as strong today had it not been for his wife’s steps to keep it alive.
King left behind a revered legacy that’s on schools, parks, streets, community centers and facilities in colleges and universities. As America prepares to mark Dr. King’s assassination, America will reach another milestone in Black history with the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Dr. Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Two months after her husband was shot Coretta gave birth to a center that took years of fundraising and countless hours of planning and organizing. Today, there remains part of the 35-acre Martin Luther King Historic District that’s east of downtown Atlanta. For five decades the center and district has boosted Atlanta’s profile and cemented its national reputation as America’s “Black Mecca.”
While the center is based on King’s life, it remains the contribution and enduring legacy of King’s devoted wife, Coretta, who faced perhaps bigger hurdles as a Black woman, wife and widow in her time. After a life in her husband’s shadow and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Coretta built the Center at a time when Black power was rising and threatened to replace King’s message of nonviolence. Museums or institutions about Black leaders were nonexistent, but Coretta believed her husband’s dream and legacy was important and big enough to document and educate generations to come.
Resilient, Coretta carved out a legacy of her own with a center that is today one of Atlanta’s most popular. Visited by presidents, royalty, celebrities and people of all races, the King Center stands as a beacon of hope that communicates King’s dream the way Coretta intended. In death as in life, through her founding of the King Center, Coretta will share the spotlight with her husband as the nation marks two important anniversaries.
The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change attracts nearly one million visitors a year, more than the White House. But this year, center officials are expecting even bigger crowds to mark the historic date that shocked America and left a movement without its leader. At the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King’s dream lives on and continues to attract visitors from all over the world.
But in the past three months, the house that Coretta built was closed for renovations in preparation for events marking the 50th Anniversary of King’s death. It reopened in January to observe the King National Holiday and to kick off an important year in Black history.
The reflecting pool, one of the most visited sites in Atlanta, encompassing the crypts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, was refurbished.
Freedom Hall, where visitors view artifacts, documents and exhibits received a new floor and video monitors to enhance the visitor experience.
Dr. Bernice A. King, CEO of The King Center said, “We want to thank the City of Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed for providing the much needed funds to renovate our reflecting pool which surrounds my parents’ crypts.”
In her basement, Coretta founded the center on June 26, 1968. The center was called the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. In July, Coretta held a press conference in Atlanta, announcing the new project. The name was eventually changed to its present one.
In her memoir “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” Coretta called the center her “Fifth Child.” Coretta said while planning the center, she sometimes slept with files of King’s sermons and news clippings stacked on the side where her husband once slept.
“I had conceived of the Center as an extension of Martin’s personality-not just as a place, not just a building, but a spirit, one unguarded with his philosophy of nonviolence and love in action. It would be the official living memorial, a place where it would teach his philosophy, methodology and strategies of nonviolence in the hope of bringing about social change and eliminating what he called the triple evils of society: poverty, racism and war.”
Though she founded the center two months after King’s death, Coretta in her memoir began preparing for the center when she taped a speech during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 when King spoke to thousands at Holy Street Baptist Church. After King’s first mass address, Coretta began saving her husband’s speeches, his papers and other memorabilia.
“I thought that if we who are living these events don’t document our story, who could we depend on to be the truth tellers to pass on accurate information to the next generation?,” Coretta said in her memoir.
In the center’s early years, the mission called for raising an estimated $20 million to fulfill its vision. The money would be needed to build the facility, hire staff and implement programs.
But the biggest hurdle for Coretta was the SCLC, the organization her husband founded in 1957. Some of King’s chief aides doubted her ability to build the center. According to Coretta’s memoir, in 1973, one of King’s top assistants, Rev. Hosea Williams and King’s closest colleague, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, criticized Coretta in the press, accusing her of taking money from SCLC and raising money for the center that should be divided up with them.
In 1970 as the center continued to be developed Coretta went on a European tour to promote her new book “My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.,” which was published a year before. When she was in Italy, Coretta got word that King’s crypt, which was then in the predominately Black South View Cemetery in Atlanta had been riddled with bullet holes. King’s remains were quietly moved to the center and in 1973 work began on King’s permanent marble crypt that along with Coretta’s, sits on the International Chapel of All Faiths and the Freedom Walkway, an island in the middle of a reflecting pool. The site is the centerpiece of the Center, one that’s a must see for visitors touring the Martin Luther King Historic District, which includes King’s childhood home, a historic fire station and the church where he preached and was remembered at his funeral.
At a time when few big corporations and affluent whites gave money to support Black institutions, Coretta’s campaign for corporate donations in itself was unprecedented. In 1978, Henry Ford II gave $8.4 million to build the Freedom Hall Complex, which includes an auditorium, meeting rooms, archive room and exhibit hall. That same year, President Jimmy Carter gave $3.5 million during a fundraiser for the center. In her memoir, Coretta said she appealed to President Richard Nixon, but never got anything but empty promises and a White House recording of Duke Ellington which they could sell to raise money.
But other companies gave generously to Coretta’s cause. From Kentucky Fried Chicken to Coca Cola, hundreds of corporations made contributions to build the center, which was completed in 1982 and completely paid off.
In her memoir, Coretta said 60 percent of the construction was done by minority contractors.
In 1981 the center opened the administration building, which houses the King Library and Archives, believed to be the largest inventory of civil rights documents in the world. On January 15, 1982-Martin Luther King’s 53rd birthday-the center completed the Freedom Hall Complex. Before this was completed, the center’s staff worked out of a house next to King’s childhood home at 501 Auburn Ave.
King’s crypt in the circular island in the center of the reflecting pool and the eternal flame symbolize King’s commitment to justice and peace. On King’s marble crypt are the words from his famous “I Have A Dream” speech: Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
On Coretta’s crypt are the words from one of her favorite scriptures in 1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now abide Faith, Hope, Love. These Three: but the greatest of these is Love.”
Coretta in her memoir said she got the idea of a reflecting pool during a visit to the Taj Mahal in India in 1970. She left inspired after seeing a similar one leading up to a mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1653 in memory of his third wife.
At the eastern end of the reflecting pool are several tiers. There are five fountains on the top tier that represent five races of humanity.
The core of the Dr. Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change is the center’s nonviolence education. King based his philosophy of nonviolence and civil disobedience through the teachings of the late Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi. Thousands have been trained in the King center’s nonviolence programs. The King Center has six principles of nonviolence that they stress in their programs (see chart).
In 1987 Coretta and the King family secured 175 buses to travel to Forsyth County in Cummings, GA to lead a march through the area after Black leaders were insulted and hit with rocks during a march weeks earlier. In 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department asked the center for help after several white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. In her memoir Coretta said she had talks with members of Los Angeles’ Bloods and Crips gang members.
Family squabbles between King’s children and controversies have rocked the center over the years, but they haven’t stopped the King Center from being a major destination and influence in civil rights issues. For Coretta, finding peace started and ended with building a historic Black national landmark that will endure for generations to come.