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MLK Day: 5 women who played a vital role in the civil rights movement

Coretta Scott King is one of the many women who have been dubbed the backbone of the civil rights movement. (Photo: Getty)
Coretta Scott King is one of the many women who have been dubbed the backbone of the civil rights movement. (Photo: Getty)

Today we celebrate the legendary civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the many women who also played integral roles in the fight against racial, economic and gender inequalities in America. From lunch counter sit-ins to nonviolent marches, those within the movement paved the way for the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here are five of those women who helped champion King’s mission of social justice and peace.

CORETTA SCOTT KING — a partner in peace

Coretta Scott King was an activist before her marriage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., continued her work alongside her husband and for many years following his assassination. (Photo: Getty)
Coretta Scott King was an activist before her marriage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., continued her work alongside her husband and for many years following his assassination. (Photo: Getty)

Coretta Scott first joined the civil rights movement as a college student in Ohio. In 1952, while attending the New England Conservatory of Music, she met Boston University student Martin Luther King Jr. By 1954, the two had married and moved to Montgomery, Ala. “I was married to my husband, but I also became married to the cause. It was my cause and that’s the way I felt about it,” Coretta Scott King told the American Academy of Achievement in a 2004 interview. Over the years, King traveled the world alongside her husband, working on rallies, protests and speeches while raising their four children.

It was my cause and that’s the way I felt about it.”Coretta Scott King, human rights activist and wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 27, 1968 just weeks after King’s assassination she delivered her late husband’s speech on the Vietnam War and said this about women: “I have great faith in the power of women who will dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the task of remaking our society. I believe that the women of this nation and of the world are the best and last hope for a world of peace and brotherhood.” King continued her husband’s legacy, establishing the King Center in Atlanta and spearheading the campaign to establish Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. Coretta Scott King died in 2006.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN — an activist for the poor

Children's Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman was selected by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to coordinate the Poor People's Campaign. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
Children's Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman was selected by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to coordinate the Poor People's Campaign. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1963, Marian Wright Edelman became the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi State Bar. She worked as a civil rights attorney with the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and became an adviser to Martin Luther King. During a visit to Washington, D.C., Edelman shared her frustrations about the widespread poverty in Mississippi with then-presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy gave Edelman a message to deliver to King. “He was sitting, always — constantly at the end — by himself trying to figure out what was the next step to take,” said Edelman in a 2012 MAKERS interview. “When I told him what Robert Kennedy had said, to bring the poor to Washington, his face lit up. He made me think I was an angel delivering a message.”

Edelman said King used this message to launch his war on poverty, but tragically, his efforts were cut short. “His last Sunday sermon title, which he had called in on the day of his assassination to his mother in Memphis, he told her he was going to preach on why America may go to hell the next Sunday. It was, again, if we don't share our richness, the blessings of our wealth, with all of those who need the basic necessities of life, we're going to go to hell.”

After King’s death, Edelman continued to work on his Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., where she created a group that later became the Children’s Defense Fund, a human rights organization that advocates for and protects children across America.

MAHALIA JACKSON — the inspiration behind the speech

Known as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson was a trusted friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and traveled with him to perform at rallies and demonstrations. (Photo by Lennart Steen/JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images)
Known as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson was a trusted friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and traveled with him to perform at rallies and demonstrations. (Photo by Lennart Steen/JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images)

There are few speeches as iconic as the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. But some may not realize those celebrated words almost didn’t happen. World-renowned gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, performed at the Lincoln Memorial that day and was sitting behind King as he spoke. “While he was reading from the texts of the speech, there was a shout from his favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson,” King’s adviser and speechwriter Clarence B. Jones told the Wall Street Journal. “She shouted to him, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!’” Jones said King looked at Jackson briefly and then moved his prepared notes to the side and grabbed the lectern. “I turned to the person standing next to me and I said, ‘These people out there, they don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church,’” said Jones. What followed was a spontaneous outpouring of inspiration that helped transform the nation.

In addition to being the catalyst for King’s famous speech, Jackson was a trusted friend of the reverend, who often called her when he was feeling down so she could sing to him. She traveled with King, performing at rallies and demonstrations, and even sang at his funeral. Mahalia Jackson died in 1972.

DIANE NASH — a leader of lunch counter sit-ins

U.S. President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In 1960, Diane Nash was selected to lead a group of Nashville, Tenn. college students who were fighting against segregation. “I remember thinking we are facing white, racist businessmen and politicians, and who are we? A group of students, 18, 19, 20 years old!” Nash told MAKERS in a 2012 interview. After extensive planning, Nash organized the first set of sit-ins targeting six lunch counters. Two weeks later, a mob attacked the protesters. “We had prepared for that in the workshops. Everybody who went had pledged to be nonviolent. When they announced that we were under arrest, everyone got up and walked willingly to the patrol wagon. And when the police turned around, a whole new set of demonstrators had taken seats at the lunch counter.”

Under Nash’s leadership, the students persisted and by that May, Nashville became the first Southern city to integrate its lunch counters. This past summer, the 84-year-old activist was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Her activism echoes the call of freedom around the world today,” President Biden said at the ceremony. “And yet, she is the first to say the medal is shared with hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans who sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty and justice for all.”

ELLA BAKER — a voice for nonviolence

Portrait of American Civil Rights activist Ella Baker (1903 - 1986), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Hatfield representative, as she sits behind a desk covered with paperwork, Washington DC, September 18, 1941. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
Portrait of American Civil Rights activist Ella Baker (1903 - 1986), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Hatfield representative, as she sits behind a desk covered with paperwork, Washington DC, September 18, 1941. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Known as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” Ella Baker was a grassroots activist even before the movement began. She served as director for multiple offices of the NAACP, eventually becoming the highest-ranking woman in the organization. Baker later helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where she worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. However, Baker’s and King’s philosophies did not always align. “To be very honest, the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement. This is not a discredit to him. This is, to me, as it should be,” Baker said in a 1968 interview. “I've never felt it necessary for any one person to embody all that's needed in a leadership for a group of people. So, as far as Martin was concerned, as far as anybody else is concerned, they were only a part of a whole. And the most important thing was and still is, in my mind, is to develop people to the point that they don't need the strong, savior-type leader.” Baker went on to mentor the young activists who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group credited with organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides. Ella Baker died in 1986.