* * *
I was one of the seven daughters of the priest of Midian. One day, we came out to draw water and we filled the troughs to water our father's flock when shepherds came and drove the flock away. A mysterious stranger, whose name I later came to know as Moses, rose to our defense and watered our flock. My sisters couldn't contain themselves. "An Egyptian was our champion!" they cried. "He rescued us from shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock." And amidst these conversations, my father invited the Egyptian man named Moses, to stay with us, and without another word, he offered my hand to him in marriage.
* * *
I became a leader of the civil rights movement, establishing my own distinguished career as an activist. I worked side by side with my husband throughout the 1950s and 1960s, taking part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. I journeyed to Ghana in 1957 to mark that nation's independence, I traveled to India on a pilgrimage in 1959 and I worked to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
* * *
I know that my husband was called for a higher obligation, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and one night, on our return to Egypt, a mighty force encountered us and sought our destruction. I took a flint and I cut off our son Gershom's foreskin, and touched his legs with it. Our son had previously not been circumcised, and I thought that my action would save his life. It did, in fact. The terror abated and we were able to continue on our journey.
I am glad that I had the strength, courage, and wherewithal to act in such a fashion. Only my actions and motives are not recorded as such later in Jewish tradition. In the Talmud, a group of male rabbis debate whether it is legal for a woman to perform circumcision. Debating about the nuances of grammar, the rabbis comment that I only "caused to cut" the foreskin of my son, meaning that "I told another person and he did it." To add insult to injury, they comment that I came and began my son's circumcision and then Moses came and completed it.
I am a mother and a wife. I am a force to be reckoned with. I saved my son's life. I saved my family. And a group of male rabbis see fit to push me out of the narrative entirely. Yes, I loved Moses. But do you know what it feels like to be thrust aside, to be made to feel like I wasn't even there, in the name of tradition?
* * *
On April 4, 1968, my husband was standing on a balcony outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when a sniper shot and killed him. Four days later, I led my husband's planned march through Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. Grieving for my husband, I nonetheless continued establishing a distinguished career in activism on my own. I worked as a public mediator and as a liaison to peace and justice organizations.
* * *
I can't tell you the numbers of hours that I spent walking among the people, listening to their torment, hearing their stories, responding with as much empathy and compassion as I could, hoping against all odds to strengthen their resolve, to push them to go just a little bit further. Moses and Aaron were always up in front, talking to Pharaoh, negotiating, trying to force Pharaoh's hand so that our people would march free.
But the Torah doesn't tell us about the other work that was needed. I attended to palpable fear, mistrust, heartbreak, and abundant terror among a people who were so downtrodden they could no longer believe in miracles. I led the other women in the camp by being present with whatever they needed in the moment. We held and we comforted one another as best we could, watching the land become ravaged with plagues, facing darkness so horrifyingly thick that we could cut it with a knife. And the bloodcurdling screams of the Egyptian women who lost their babies, those I will never forget. In that moment, it didn't matter what they had done to us. We who had held our own children in our arms felt their pain. Countless women asked me if I thought that they would be the next ones to lose their babies. The Torah tells us that we left Egypt, crossed the sea, and served God. It doesn't speak about those of us, the nameless women, who ministered to the people in their desperate time of need, a time with so many questions, and so few answers.
* * *
I remained active through demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa. I expressed my views as a syndicated columnist and contributor to CNN. I founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, serving as the center's president and chief executive officer from its inception. And in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing my husband's birthday as a federal holiday.
* * *
I don't hold anything against Nachshon, for being brave enough to step into those waters before they parted, and before we marched to freedom. And even though we had our differences, I actually don't hold anything against Miriam for leading all of the women in song when we crossed the sea. All I wonder, in this sacred tradition of ours, is the question, Where am I? Where am I, to you, dear reader? Do I matter to you? I was married to Moses. I gave birth to his son. I saved his life and our son's life. And I'm written out this sacred tradition of ours.
Can you imagine, please? Can you imagine, what it meant for Moses to come home to me, night-after-night? Can you imagine what it meant to hold Moses in my arms? You didn't see his tears. Or his doubt. Or those endless strategy sessions that ran well into the night, where I just looked on from a distance, my hand cupped over my mouth.
I just stood on the side, quietly doing whatever was necessary, never seeking affirmation or acknowledgment, only seeking to get the job done, and to make sure that Pharaoh, would let our people go. But you don't see me on the shores of the sea. Torah doesn't tell you that I'm standing there too, that I'm also marching to freedom. So, dear reader, dear student of Jewish history, is it enough for you to honor Moses? What would it mean for you to remember me? What would it mean for you to remember Tzipporah?
* * *
I believe all Americans who believe in freedom, tolerance, and human rights have a responsibility to oppose bigotry and prejudice based on sexual orientation...Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation...Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul...Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated...My concept of happiness is to be filled in a spiritual sense.
Yes, I too had vision. I had a dream of my own. But my words are not memorialized in Washington, DC. There is no statue of me or of my efforts in our nation's capital. And the fight continues. This Monday, will you pause to recall my story too? And will you remember everyone else, in addition to my husband, who passionately, through voice, sweat, blood, and tears, tried to bring freedom and justice to our United States of America. They don't call Monday, Coretta Scott King Day, but please remember, "The civil rights movement could not have happened without women. They were grassroots organizers, educators, strategists and writers. They built organizational infrastructure, developed legal arguments, and mentored young activists. They fought ardently against the forces of racism, but they also battled against another form of oppression: sexism."
Perhaps this Monday, we should recognize the work of all civil rights activists, including those, like Tzipporah, who sought no affirmation or acknowledgment, who did whatever was necessary, so that all of us might march to freedom.
All biographic details on Coretta Scott King (italicized paragraphs) are cited or paraphrased from: https://www.biography.com/people/coretta-scott-king-9542067
Based on a teaching by Tal Ilan inThe Women's Torah Commentary, p. 326 addressing Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 27a.
Exodus chapters 5-12, inclusive.
Exodus chapters 14 and 15, at the crossing of the sea.