Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Don’t Forget the Women Behind the Movement

As the nation celebrates Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is also a time to acknowledge the women who worked as catalysts with King to assure the civil rights movement was successful. Though their stories are sometimes overlooked, these women were instrumental in the fight for equal rights for African-Americans. Without these women, the struggle for equality would have never been waged. “Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement,” activist Coretta Scott King asserted in the magazine New Lady in 1966. There were women who boycotted, women who organized and strategized with King. Walker’s Legacy would like to highlight 5 women who played a huge role in the civil rights movement alongside Dr.King. 

1.Coretta Scott King

“I believe Martin was chosen, I believe I was chosen, and I say to the kids, this family was chosen as well,” Coretta Scott King said in her posthumous memoir, “My Life, My Love, My Legacy.” Scott King, a mother of four, remained by her husband’s side throughout his almost 13 years as the leader of the modern American Civil Rights Movement and up until his assassination in 1968. She would ultimately go on to preserve her husband’s memory through the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as lobby for 15 years to help establish Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday.

2.Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin was 15-years-old when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama bus.  Colvin, emboldened by her history lessons, refused. “My head was just too full of black history,” she stated in an interview with NPR. “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.” Colvin was arrested and eventually put on indefinite probation. Though Colvin’s courageous act occurred nine months before Rosa Parks’ similar protest, the NAACP chose to use the 42-year-old civil rights activist as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott, as they believed an unwed mother—Colvin became pregnant when she was 16—would not be the best face for the movement. Colvin felt slighted, but later joined three other women—Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald—as the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that ultimately overturned bus segregation in Alabama.

3.Dorothy Cotton

Dorothy Cotton was invited by King to work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the center of the civil rights movement. Cotton served as the conference’s national director of education for 12 years, helping to train countless activists in nonviolent action. She was the only female member of the executive staff and a close confidant of King,according to the Cotton Institute. Cotton is credited with typing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a hotel room in Washington. She was also in Memphis, at the same hotel as King, before his assassination in 1968, according to The New York Times.

4.Maude Ballou 

Maude Ballou was known as the “Daredevil” who served as Martin Luther King Jr’s right-hand woman. In 1955, Ballou was approached by her husband’s friend, a young minister and activist named Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the personal secretary. Ballou became the Rev. Dr. King’s right-hand woman from 1955 until 1960, years of great unrest and transforming events that included the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the publication of King’s first book, Stride Towards Freedom, and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in Washington, D.C. Despite her and her loved ones being in grave danger because of her position, Ballou never left MLK’s side because she knew in her heart she was fighting the good fight. 

  1. Mamie Till Mobley

Mamie Till Mobley’s story is one of triumph in the face of tragedy. Though she never sought to be an activist, her resolve inspired the civil rights movement and “broke the emotional chains of Jim Crow,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson would remark upon her death. On August 28, 1955, Mobley’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, by two white men who claimed that Till had “wolf-whistled” at one of their wives. “Mrs. Mobley did a profound strategic thing,” Jackson later told the New York Times. “More than 100,000 people saw his body lying in that casket…at that time the largest single civil rights demonstration in American history.” Until her death in 2003, at the age of 81, Mobley advocated for underprivileged children and against racial injustice.


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Walker’s Legacy is a digital platform for the professional and entrepreneurial multicultural woman and exists to inspire, equip, and engage through thought-provoking content, educational programming, and a global community.

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Walker's Legacy is a growing global women in business collective founded to establish networks of empowerment and access for women of color in business.