Honor Mrs. King: Forge Real War on Poverty

In this Black History Month of February and just days after the passing of a great American woman, Coretta Scott King, I think it important to remember her husband’s words about "greatness." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be great who serves others."

Coretta Scott King was both famous and great. She was famous in her own right, carrying on courageously the legacy and cause for which Dr. King gave his life, and truly great because she served all Americans, white and black, in the goal of racial and religious reconciliation. Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, said it best when he lauded, "She was strong, if not stronger, than (Dr. King) was."

Mrs. King did not falter or waiver after her husband’s death but instead assumed the helm and continued to fight, leading the march of striking garbage workers just days after her husband’s death. Then, one year after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Mrs. King founded the multimillion-dollar Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change in Atlanta.

I first met Mrs. King on the occasion of President Reagan’s signing of the Martin Luther King holiday bill, of which I was a co-sponsor with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and John Conyers of Michigan, among many others. She was beautiful, charming and totally dedicated to the commemoration and celebration not only of Dr. King’s legacy, but to the advancement of civil, human and voting rights for all people here and around the world.

My very first trip as secretary of housing in the Bush 41 Cabinet was to the King Center in Atlanta, where I spent several hours with her and her family touring, talking and engaging in a dialogue on what she envisioned as the next chapter in the great civil rights movement. Mrs. King went on to ask me to use my political influence to help address the pressing problems of impoverished urban and rural neighborhoods, the unacceptable levels of poverty and homelessness, and ultimately the lack of access to capital for all too many people of color with which to launch businesses and own their own homes.

The issue of poverty was a subject addressed by Dr. King in his "I Have a Dream" speech of August 1963, when he said, "the Negro lives on an isle of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." Dr. King talked of the battle against the grinding abject despair that gripped all too many people and families left out of the American dream. He said that while we’ve come a long way, we still have long to go.

Obviously, education, homeownership and job opportunities are critical to a meaningful bipartisan war on poverty. I recently had the opportunity to join Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles at the University of Southern California in a two-day-long conference on poverty sponsored by Daughters of Charity and co-chaired by Maria Shriver, wife of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

It was both edifying and provocative to hear the viewpoints left and right, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat as we grappled with an emerging consensus that emphasized public-private partnerships and the critically important role of private enterprises in playing a central role in this 21st century challenge to our nation.

Had she lived, Mrs. King would have had a place of honor at this USC event, but in her memory I dedicated my speech to her friendship, leadership and moral clarity in calling America to honor its pledge as reflected in our revolutionary declaration that all of us are born equal, have intrinsic worth and dignity, and have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In "Pirkei Avot," or "The Ethics of Our Fathers," Rabbi Shimon wrote of the three crowns to a man’s life: "The crown of learning, the crown of priesthood and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all."

That goes for women as well as men, and Coretta Scott King leaves the ultimate legacy to her family, friends and the world — the legacy of the highest crown of life, that of a good name, indeed a great name.