The Rev. Dr. Chelsea Brooke Yarborough believes that any celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. is not complete without recognizing the women who were essential in creating his legacy.
An assistant professor of liturgical studies and Styberg Teaching Fellow at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Yarborough shared her hope of expanding the King narrative in her webinar, “Activism and the Women Who Made King,” presented as part of Hollins University’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Without the existence of Black women, Martin Luther King Jr. just wasn’t,” Yarborough said. “That doesn’t take away from him but adds to the robustness of his legacy.”
Yarborough described the voices that surrounded King as “an ecosystem of activism. To study an ecosystem is to study the relationships of interacting organisms in any given community. Interdependence is the deepest gift of creation, the true mark of flourishing.”
She continued, “When we talk about the civil rights movement, too often other issues of intersectionality are left out of the conversation. I am struck by how often I hear [King] taught as an individual with a movement behind him, and not an entity within an ecosystem of other important parts.”
Yarborough centered on the contributions of “just a few of the Black women whose lives made King’s legacy possible.”
“The Invisible Labor of Intimacy”
King’s wife, Coretta Scott King; his mother, Alberta Williams King; and his two daughters, Yolanda and Bernice King, were the civil rights leader’s “invisible labor of intimacy,” said Yarborough. “They are often the ones who take up the cost of the call in ways that aren’t written or archived. Their lives are critical to think about when we unpack the ecosystem of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activism.”
Yarborough cited The King Center’s description of Coretta Scott King: “From the earliest days, she balanced mothering and movement work, speaking before church, civic, college, fraternal, and peace groups.”
“For Coretta Scott King,” Yarborough said, “mothering was a part of the movement because she was raising Black children as she was speaking in these spaces about the necessities of justice and equity. The movement was also part of her mothering. She was speaking toward a world that her children would be better off in than the one they were currently experiencing.”
Coretta Scott King saw herself as her husband’s partner in the movement. She “spoke of the ways that for her, their partnership with its imperfections was put together by God and that she chose this life as part of her own sense of calling and legacy in this world. Martin Luther King Jr. was intentionally put forth as the face of the civil rights movement. Someone had to carry it. She knew that support, care, compassion, and presence would be critical, to be the voice of reason when no one else was around that said, ‘You can keep going.’”
After she wed Martin Luther King Sr., Alberta Williams King was forced to quit her job as a educator because Georgia law at the time prohibited married women from teaching. “So,” Yarborough explained, “she found other ways to participate in education through her activist work,” which included membership in Atlanta’s NAACP chapter. “Her grandson, Martin Luther King III, said, ‘Her greatest task was developing her own children. She explained the vestiges of racism, insisting that they must make this world a better place.’”
Martin Luther King Jr. and his mother were very close, Yarborough stated, “and his upbringing was foundational to who he was and what he became. We can’t forget the woman who actually gave Martin life.”
In his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” His two daughters, Yolanda and Bernice, were “the women whose lives Martin Luther King Jr. helped to shape in this world,” Yarborough said. “As I consider where Yolanda and Bernice, ages 12 and five, respectively, were with their dad when he was assassinated, I thought about the particularities of Black girls and how too often we forget that there are differences developmentally between Black girls and Black women. For some of us, we might be a little too quick to say the movement is more important than an individual family unit. But, I do think that it is important for us to consider what that sacrifice might be like for a child.”
“Complementary Oppositions that Create Opportunity”
Fannie Lou Hamer became active in the civil rights movement in 1962 and established herself as someone, according to Yarborough, who “was fighting for those that sometimes even the movement itself forgot.” Hamer was “a critical conversation partner [for King] because she made sure that class and education were part of the rights they talked about. Her affinity was to the call, not to King.”
To Yarborough, Hamer represented the importance of a “complementary opposition in an ecosystem, an opposition that creates opportunity. Sometimes you need a voice that says, ‘Y’all are doing a good thing, and yet there’s still more to do.’”
“‘Tell Them About the Dream, Martin’”
The address for which Martin Luther King Jr. is best known is his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered before more than a quarter of a million people during the March on Washington in 1963. Yarborough highlighted the two Black women who played pivotal roles in transforming that address into what Brittanica.com calls “one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement and one of the most iconic speeches in American history.”
One of the first women ordained by the American Baptist Association, Prathia Hall was, in Yarborough’s words, “a preacher among preachers, a speaker among speakers.” King was in the audience when Hall delivered a prayer that referenced a dream. The prayer had a tremendous impact on King, and he remembered the dream motif when he and his colleagues were writing the March on Washington address. “Hall is so critical to this ecosystem because it reminds us that a moment in someone’s presence and in their circle can create a legacy that lasts a lifetime,” Yarborough said.
Among King’s closest friends was the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “King would call her when he was in particular need of encouragement. It was said her voice carried a balm that would soothe his soul,” Yarborough said.
The March on Washington took place on a hot August day, and as King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial, Yarborough recalled that “people were starting to leave. He was losing folks even though his content was good. His friend on the platform [Jackson] witnessed what was happening but knew that no heat was going to stop this moment from what it needed to be. Standing behind him, Mahalia Jackson exclaimed, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ Moving from a speech to a sermon, and moving from what was prepared to purposeful flow and proclamation, King found his rhythm. Using the ‘I have a dream’ repetition, inspired by Prathia Hall but ignited by Mahalia Jackson in real time, this [address] becomes what we know today.”
“Do the Work that Ignites You”
Moving forward from the Martin Luther King Jr. Day remembrance, Yarborough encouraged “thinking about the spaces and roles you can serve. Whether you find yourself at the face of a movement or somewhere else, your role is important. We can’t detangle the inherent interdependence of all of us. We all have a role, even if it’s not seen as the role.
“I invite you with hope, with love, with possibility, with joy, with all that is within you to step fully into yourself and do the work that ignites you, that centers justice and the wellness of those not often given the luxury. And as you do, don’t forget to take a look around at the ecosystem that is helping to make you.”