Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which this year falls on Jan. 21, is a federal holiday that marks the birthday (Jan. 15, 1929) of one of the United States’ most-revered civil rights leaders.
After King was killed in 1968 while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, his pursuit of social justice and human rights fell upon the shoulders of his wife, Coretta Scott King. For the next 38 years until her death in 2006, it was up to Coretta to carry on her husband’s legacy.
By the time of the first official Martin Luther King holiday in January 1986, Coretta had received 29 honorary degrees from American universities, and in May of that year she flew across the Pacific and traveled to Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka to speak at an event marking the school’s 70th Founder’s Day. SGU had attempted to connect with the King family around 20 years prior, when then-Chancellor W. Maxfield Garrott invited Dr. King to visit the Baptist college. For Coretta, it was Chancellor Charles L. Whaley who invited her, stating that “Mrs. King has long contributed to improving society through nonviolence to gain human rights, freedom and peace — based on Christianity.”
So, while a kimono-wearing Princess Diana and Prince Charles stole Japanese headlines during their five-day tour of Tokyo and Kyoto, Coretta spoke to students and faculty at a Baptist school about the need to pursue a global community. Leroy Seat, then a full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin, remembers her visit as a “huge success.” Seat recalls that “a public hall was rented for her coming, and around 4,000 people gathered to hear her address, which was translated into Japanese by the university president.”
Coretta’s time in Japan was productive, and she had stayed long enough to begin to understand a few nuances of the culture, and even respect its ways. Coretta once did a bit of damage control for former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who in September of 1986 made off-putting remarks when comparing the U.S. and Japan: “The level of Japanese society far surpasses that of the United States,” he said to younger politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). “There are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the United States whose average level is extremely low.”
Quickly apologizing for any potential damage, the prime minister received an assist from Coretta, who only four months prior had been at SGU. She decided to give Nakasone the benefit of the doubt: “Having been to Japan, where I spoke and met with people, I understand their cultural differences with us, so I understand what he meant to say … from what I see, the prime minister’s words were taken out of context. I realize that happens because I get taken out of context continually, too.”
Ten years later, Coretta was invited back to Japan again, this time to “speak at a series of international women’s conferences in Japan.” Stepping out from behind the shadow of her husband, Coretta placed a priority on women’s rights, hoping to find common ground between the United States and Japan.
“(Women) can accomplish much by working together to enhance understanding, healing and reconciliation between our two nations,” she said. “We also have a unique opportunity to join in building a global women’s movement for peace, social justice and economic security for all people.”
Coretta’s steady and confident presence as her husband’s legacy bearer influenced Japanese leadership traveling to America. In 1990, then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, attempting to revitalize the image of Japan in the United States, felt comfortable enough to meet Coretta in Atlanta and place a wreath at the grave of her husband. Through a public relations officer, Kaifu said that “he greatly admired Dr. King. It’s only natural he would come here … Japan is committed to human rights around the world.”
Four years later, on June 10, 1994, the Imperial Couple continued that commitment, devoting two weeks of their time traveling through the country. According to the Arizona Republic, the Emperor and Empress “were greeted at Atlanta Airport with a red carpet, the polite applause of several hundred Japanese nationals who lived in the United States and the strains of Japan’s national anthem, followed by ‘The Stars & Stripes Forever.'”
“For myself personally,” said the Emperor, “I hope that this trip will be an opportunity to deepen my own understanding of the United States.”
Billed as an 11-city goodwill tour, the Imperial Couple bowed after placing a wreath at King’s grave.
Without Coretta’s efforts to establish her husband’s legacy via The King Center in Atlanta, and her drive to have the U.S. government honor her husband with Monday’s one-day holiday, King may very well have faded into the shadows of history. It’s often ignored that King, at the end of his life, was disliked by more than half of the United States for his then-radical views toward Vietnam and income inequality.
As King Center board member Harold Sims recalled in 1996: “Martin was in descent when he was killed. It would have been easy to forget King as just a moment in time. King never had a chance to institutionalize his principles of nonviolent social change. But because of Coretta’s commitment and tenacity, he became more. She defined his legacy.”
Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.”