Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young: the list of men made famous for their involvement in the civil rights movement goes on and on. But what of the women who toiled both at their side and in the background and made equally significant contributions and sometimes greater sacrifices? They were given their due at a King memorial luncheon Friday afternoon that celebrated the “Women Who Dared to Dream,” too.
The event featured contemporary women, like host Alexis Herman, a former Labor Department secretary; BET Chairman and CEO Debra L. Lee; EPA administrator Lisa Jackson; Gina Adams, senior vice president for government affairs at FEDEX; and other women who have reached the highest echelons of government, arts and entertainment and corporate America.
But they were there to honor the "struggles and successes of our sheroes, who struggled and worked for us to simply have the privilege to be where we are today," Herman said.
King frequently said that he could not do what he did without the support of others, including his wife and such women as Dorothy Height, Juanita Abernathy and Dorothy Cotton. His sister, Christine King Farris, said in her remarks that their mother had a “pivotal influence” on King and that “many of his virtues, including courage, faith and work ethic, all echo [her] teachings and examples.” Without that, Farris believes, he would not have become the leader now enshrined on the National Mall.
Poet and author Maya Angelou read a poem she wrote for the occasion, titled “Abundant Hope” that spoke to King’s insurmountable determination to fight for equality and justice. “Fire bombs and dogs could not take his voice away,” the poem reads. “He brought the great songs of faith, persuading men and women to think beyond their baser nature.” It will be included in a time capsule that will be created when the memorial is dedicated in September or October.
Xerona Clayton, who worked closely with King, told an amusing story that illustrated the points Angelou made in her poem about how racist and vulgar behavior could not deter him from his mission. She recalled incidences in which after ensuring that they were speaking to King, one very well dressed white man spat in his face and another punched him.
“The guy spat all over his head. I was so mad. I was new to the nonviolent movement. He had to take time to give me a lesson, saying don’t hate him, love him,” Clayton said. “The man practiced what he preached. He believed in it and practiced it every day.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband Medgar was violently gunned down in Mississippi in 1963, remembered the horror that befell her, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X and how while they initially worried about whether they were doing right by their children, they recognized they had to stay in the battle for civil rights, which continues today.
“For some it has just become real and we must reach out and do as [King] and others did: embrace the young people, help them to understand the time that was Martin Luther King Jr. and be infused with his spirit,” Evers-Williams said. “Do as West Point does. They teach those young men and women about the battles that took place so they could learn and craft their own games for war. We need to do that: craft our own games for justice, for peace, for equality. Because all we have to do is look around us--it might be uncomfortable but we still find touches of prejudice, racism, hatred around us. There is still so much more to be done.”
In bittersweet personal moment, Evers-Williams spoke of her husband, who is buried a short distance away from the King memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, and expressed the hope “that some way those two vibes are still coming together, infusing us with the need to continue the dream of Martin Luther King and the rest of us.”