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From Coretta Scott King to Ella Baker: These women's ideas were key to MLK's work

"Whether their names get called or not, women significantly impacted his life and his work," said Villanova University Prof. Naomi Washington-Leapheart.

It has long been said that women were the backbone of the civil rights movement. That was true even in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the charismatic leader whose name has become synonymous with the movement.

"Women were significant in his life, their intellectual production, their spiritual accompaniment. ... Women surrounded him in so many ways," said the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.

"Even though those are the names we don't know, that we can't remember easily, those folks were significant to him," Washington-Leapheart said. "They inspired him. They critiqued him — as Ella Baker did. Everybody needs to be challenged and pushed. Whether their names get called or not, women significantly impacted his life and his work."

As the country observes what would have been King's 92nd year, here are seven women who influenced him in monumental ways.

Coretta Scott King

Martin Luther King Jr. is welcomed with a kiss from his wife, Coretta Scott King, after leaving court in Montgomery, Ala., on March 22, 1956.
Martin Luther King Jr. is welcomed with a kiss from his wife, Coretta Scott King, after leaving court in Montgomery, Ala., on March 22, 1956.Gene Herrick / AP

Coretta Scott King was a pillar of the civil rights movement. She played a central role in King's work, having given up her dream of being a singer to support her husband and their justice efforts.

"My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle. While she had certain natural fears and anxieties concerning my welfare, she never allowed them to hamper my active participation in the movement," King said in "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr." "In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope. I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Corrie, I could not have withstood the ordeals and tensions surrounding the movement."

Her leadership has largely been relegated to the shadow of her husband's celebrity, but Coretta Scott King was certainly an activist in her own right. She was engaged in several social and political issues, including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, advocating for women's rights and more. In her own words, the road of justice and Black liberation was a path the couple went down together.

"I believe Martin was chosen, I believe I was chosen, and I say to the kids, this family was chosen as well," she wrote in her posthumously published 2017 memoir, "Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy."

Although family was central in her life, her individuality can't be forgotten.

"I am an activist," she said years after her husband's death, according to The Atlantic. "I didn't just emerge after Martin died — I was always there and involved."

Coretta Scott King died in 2006.

Alberta Williams King

IMAGE: Alberta King, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King
Martin Luther King Jr. with his mother, Alberta, and his wife, Coretta, in 1958.Al Pucci / NY Daily News via Getty Images

King credited his passion for social justice to the "strong, dynamic personality" of his father and the "gentle and sweet" disposition of his mother, Alberta Williams King, according to his autobiography.

"Unlike my father, she is soft-spoken and easy going," King wrote. "In spite of her relatively comfortable circumstances, my mother never complacently adjusted herself to the system of segregation. She instilled a sense of self-respect in all of her children from the very beginning."

Alberta King was a monumental figure at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, a spiritual home for the family and the church that shaped her son's politics. She was active in the NAACP and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

"King saw, in his mother, a person who was faithful and committed to her faith community, to religious life," Washington-Leapheart said. "His father was that prominent public minister who could engage the media, who could engage politicians, etc. His mother must have been a model for how to be faithful in private life. She was disciplined, showing up week in and week out to manage the music ministry at the church. She must have modeled how to fortify and anchor a family full of folks who were publicly permanent. She was that model for how to ride the ups and downs, the waves of life, how to grieve with dignity."

Alberta Williams King died in 1974. A man shot and killed her as she played the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Mahalia Jackson

Image: Mahalia Jackson.
Mahalia Jackson in 1954.CBS / Getty Images

"Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

It was this directive that Mahalia Jackson, the iconic vocalist dubbed the Queen of Gospel, yelled to King from behind the podium during his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963. The encouraging command prompted King to redirect his entire speech, resulting in the most famous part of his address, in which he declares his dream for a better America.

"One of the world's greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world's greatest Baptist preachers," said Clarence Jones, one of King's advisers, who helped prepare the speech. "She may have ignored the fact that there were almost 300,000 other people there, and she just shouted out to Martin, 'Tell them about the dream.' Anybody else who would yell at him, he probably would've ignored it. He didn't ignore Mahalia Jackson."

It isn't surprising that Jackson would have an impact in such a monumental moment in King's life. She had become a fixture at King's side as he spoke at rallies and demonstrations in the South. Jackson and King met in 1956 when King's closest comrade, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, invited her to support the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. She supported King's career fiercely from then on.

On days King was feeling down, he'd even call Jackson just to hear her sing. Her voice, it has been said, provided "the soundtrack of the civil rights movement."

Jackson died in 1972.

Dorothy Cotton

Image: Dorothy Cotton
Dorothy Cotton in 1963.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Cotton became a close confidant of King's after he invited her to work at the SCLC (the center of the civil rights movement) in the 1960s, according to The Dorothy Cotton Institute. She was the only woman in King's inner circle of aides, serving as a planner, activist and leader. She trained thousands of activists to participate in nonviolent action, voter rights efforts and basic learning skills. She is even credited with typing King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963.

Before she met King, Cotton organized several protests against segregation and was very involved in anti-racism work. In a 2017 interview, Cotton said she and King became close friends while organizing — during protests, workshops and long road trips. The two spent so much time together that many scholars have come to think of Cotton as King's "other wife." She described King as her "best friend."

"We know she was one of the women closest to him in the years before his death," Tiffany Gill, an associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware, told The Philadelphia Tribune. "With her, there hasn't been a lot of historical [accounts] but she carried a great deal of the emotional labor of the movement and that is something often unacknowledged that women do. ... Particularly for King, she was a confidant and really gave herself wholeheartedly. She got divorced as a result of her involvement with the movement."

Cotton died in 2018.

Ella Baker

Image: Ella Baker
Ella Baker in 1941.Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

Perhaps no one challenged King more than Baker. She has been called the "mother of the civil rights movement," and her years of Black liberation work are hailed among scholars and activists — even if her name has been somewhat forgotten by the public. Baker, a seasoned activist and organizer, spearheaded the SCLC in its early days and worked alongside a young King. She mentored the young activists who founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in 1960.

Baker's relationship with King was tense, because, although she had much experience and wisdom from years of organizing, King struggled to let a woman take the lead in any meaningful way, scholars have said.

"She thought she had a lot to offer King, because she had been in the movement so long and had been working in the grassroots movement," Gill said. She added: "Even though she knew a lot more, she was still relegated to get coffee, get notes, run papers off in lithograph. She openly critiqued them, but she still participated in the movement, because she felt the overall goals were still important."

Baker was director of several NAACP offices and a key member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her insight proved to be forward-thinking. She often called for a movement that focused on grassroots organizing rather than a single leader.

"Strong people don't need a strong leader," Baker once said, according to the activist and historian Barbara Ransby, author of "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement." "Martin didn't make the movement. ... The movement made Martin."

Baker died in 1986.

Dorothy Height

Image: Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height during the 1960s.Express Newspapers / Getty Images

Height was an elder of King, and she influenced him as such. She met King when he was 15 years old, according to her memoir, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates." She was often one of very few women in King's courts, and her presence was felt by many people in the inner circle.

"Dr. Dorothy Height has been a great inspiration to me," Coretta Scott King wrote. "In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, she was the only woman in the decision-making councils of the male leadership. Dorothy was always there, and she has continued to be there, before and after."

Height is known as one of America's most prominent civil rights activists. Her work focused on Black womanhood, and for decades she was president of the National Council of Negro Women. She co-founded "Wednesdays in Mississippi," a consciousness raising group for Black and white women in the North and the South.

She was a key organizer of the March on Washington, and, at King's request, she led a group to Alabama to meet with the families of the four girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.

"Height's work was done specifically with Black women and Black women organizations," Gill said. "She never was as publicly critical of King as Ella Baker. I do find interesting, whenever Height talked about King, she would talk about how young he was and a smart young guy. But it was definitely a way of her saying she was in the game a lot longer and he should respect her as such."

Height died in 2010.

Prathia Hall

Image: Prathia Hall
Prathia Hall in an undated photo.Frank Lennon / Toronto Star via Getty Images

King didn't mince words when it came to his admiration of Prathia Hall.

"Prathia Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow," he once said, according to PBS.

Hall was an ordained American Baptist Association minister and one of the first female field leaders for SNCC in southwest Georgia. She also held the Martin Luther King Jr. chair in social ethics at Boston University School of Theology. Scholars say it was Hall's words that ultimately inspired King's famous "I Have a Dream" refrain. Washington-Leapheart said Hall was in her early 20s at the time and had been doing voter rights work during the summer.

"It was the beginning of an organizing meeting, a rally, and she offered the prayer. [King] was in the audience, and she prayed this prayer that referenced this 'dream.' She spoke about how she had a dream, and he remembered that," Washington-Leapheart said.

"He was so taken with that and moved by that. He was inspired by that refrain. He famously used that refrain in his speech in the March on Washington."

Hall died in 2002.

CORRECTION (Jan.19, 2021, 10:04 a.m. ET) An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a Villanova University professor in a headline. She is Naomi Washington-Leapheart, not Washington-Leaphart.

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