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Coretta King walked softly, led fiercely

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In some ways, Coretta Scott King fit the ideal of a traditional wife and mother.

Former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young remembers when he was an aide to her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights leader would bring home 15 people.

“She’d get up and cook breakfast and never make a fuss,”Young says of Mrs. King. “I never heard her complain about anything.”

But reminiscences like that hide the woman’s true leadership.

  • She possessed physical courage. Even after her home was bombed while she sat inside with a baby and a friend, King refused to leave town.

  • She remained focused in a crisis. After her husband was assassinated, King went to Memphis to take his place in leading tens of thousands of sanitation workers in a protest march. The next day, she headed her husband’s funeral procession.

  • She stayed in the game. Only two months after MLK’s murder, King spoke during the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., calling for “a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war.”

  • She defined leadership for herself. King said women would become powerful as activists and women if they committed to social causes.

  • She made herself visible when it counted. King fought for independence for Ghana in 1957, and in 1984, she was arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting apartheid in South Africa.

  • She spoke up. In the early ’80s, King visited the White House with a leading minister, who made a statement. President Ronald Reagan turned to King and asked how things were, apparently going for the soft touch. King looked him in the eye and said: “Mr. President, all is not well in our community.”
— Adapted from “First Lady,” Vern E. Smith, The Crisis, and “A Revolutionary Woman,” Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ms.

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