As I listened to the first few minutes of President Barack Obama's speech on Saturday in Selma, Ala., I caught myself clapping my hands lightly at the mention of Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton. His mention of women wasn't a surprise; in 2015, it is the politically correct and expected thing to do, and it offers a slight corrective to the long history of eclipsing women's roles in the civil rights movement.
And then the roll call of names of men and women who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago -- some of whom were beaten by Alabama state troopers on "Bloody Sunday" and others who marched a few weeks later under federal protection -- ended with "Dr. [Martin Luther] King."
"You left off Coretta!" I said to the YouTube video playing on my iPad.
President Obama had left Coretta Scott King off the list, or perhaps included her among his recognition of the nameless "so many more." Feeling personally insulted, I folded my arms across my chest and shook my head.
It was an odd reaction, I know, and its source is difficult to explain. It's not like she was a personal friend of my family's or anything. But I think I felt offended because I pictured her sacrifice -- nights alone, threatening phone calls, trips to various jails to bail her husband out, maintaining the picture of perfect poise as her family life faltered, widowhood.
"She deserves more credit," I said to myself. And not just for marching from Selma to Montgomery.
Not hearing Coretta's name in the president's speech brought to mind a conversation I had with the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou after his lecture in January. I thought I would be writing a column about Martin Luther King Jr.'s views on women -- which, by many accounts, were sexist -- and I wanted his thoughts on what the late leader might think of a civil rights movement led by poor, black, queer women today.
Rev. Sekou said King's sexism wasn't unique for the time period, and it was hard to predict who the King of that era would be in 2015. But he did make a conjecture that surprised me: Coretta Scott King might have led her husband into more egalitarian views because she was the stronger activist in the relationship. She wasn't the charismatic male leader who has come to symbolize the civil rights movement, but she was a good and strong influence on him.
That story resonates with me right now because I wonder if I could do what Rev. Sekou presumes Mrs. King would have been able to do for her husband had he lived long enough. If I met an attractive, charismatic man with whom I could march in sync on matters of race and poverty, could I lead him to be more of a feminist? The Mariam who has observed others' life experiences says, "Don't be silly. You know the futility of marrying anyone you hope to change radically."
The traditionalist in me who has been taught that women follow and need to let a man lead agrees, albeit for different reasons. She also wishes that finding a man whose religious and political beliefs coincide with her own weren't such a stretch of the imagination. And at one time, it wasn't. In 2008, I was lying on my sofa in my then-boyfriend's arms as we watched the Democratic National Convention together and thought about how we could be the next Barack and Michelle. We talked politics all the time. We got angry about most of the same injustices. I would even say he had feminist leanings.
Fast-forward to 2015 and my recent date with a man who divorced his first wife because she didn't want to be a housewife.
So I continue to evaluate: What makes for a suitable mate when my political and religious beliefs are messy and in transition? And I keep hoping I'll find someone with whom I'm equally yoked -- in more ways than one.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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