As we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I reflect on his wife, Coretta Scott King. Inasmuch as I honor and admire the leadership and legacy of the Rev. King, I wonder about the one who did not always receive credit or recognition. The one who often stood in the icon’s shadow and was sometimes overlooked. The one who took care of Yolanda, Bernice, Martin Luther III and Dexter.   

In the last chapter of her book “My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.,” Coretta shares one of her speeches delivered at the Memphis City Hall. In the speech, she echoed the Rev. King’s vision and encouraged the audience by saying, “Every man deserves a right to a job or an income so that he can pursue liberty, life and happiness. Our great nation, as he often said, has the resources, but the question was: Do we have the will? Somehow I hope in this resurrection experience the will will be created within the hearts, and minds, and the souls, and the spirits of those who have the power to make these changes come about.”    

All of us have the capacity to enact and influence change. With each interaction in our community, our workplace, our church, our school, our travels and so on, we have an opportunity to learn about others, defend the truth, share our story, find common ground, become allies and build relationships. Rarely does this happen overnight or immediately, but it begins with a first step. Since we know we are endowed with this capacity, a first step is the will to exercise our capacity.

In other words, do we want to step out and effect change or wait, watch and witness the threatened erosion of our humanitarian values and the deliberate destruction of our democracy?

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not for humanity and democracy, then what? Former President Barack Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  

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The question that Coretta Scott King asked in 1968 is still relevant today: “Do we have the will?” It asserts that our will is the catalyst to facilitate change. If we have the will but have not taken action, how do we overcome stagnation, inertia and apathy? Did those before us have more at stake? Did they do more with less? At what point do we stop deferring to others to address dire needs in our communities and our country? Mrs. King knew that our actions or inactions shape the social, moral and economic structure and scaffolding of our country. She challenged us then as she does today: to step up, get involved, take the first step and make a difference. 

The challenges in our country today are broad, deep, complex, layered, intergenerational and intersectional. There are freedoms waiting to be freed. They compel us to overcome hurdles, deconstruct barriers, resist immobility and silence doubt.  

After the assassination of her husband, Coretta could have gone into an opaque obscurity, shielding herself from public and social challenges and letting others define the couple’s legacy, but instead she continued to implement and advance the Rev. King’s vision.  She spent time fundraising. She was the prominent advocate in creating the Rev. King’s birthday as a federal holiday. She was the thought-leader and founder of the King Center in Atlanta, which is extraordinarily led by the couple’s daughter, Bernice King.   

Let’s commemorate both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King as we take a chisel in hand and unveil ensconced creations this world has never seen. Let’s render services that will transform lives, inspire hope and compel others to pay it forward. 

Without question, the Rev. King’s legacy is rooted in his profoundly indelible and inerasable civil rights work. His dream lives in the foundational and sustainable work of his wife, as well as the future-focused leadership of Bernice King and the support of her brothers, as well as each and every one of us.   

The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.