"You can't do all of it by yourself."
"There are a lot of people who would love to relegate me to a symbolic figure and that's it. I have never been just a symbol of anything. I am a thinker. I have strong beliefs, and I try to be an example of what I believe in."
-- Coretta Scott King, 1993 interview in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"I think at many points she educated me. When I met her, she was very concerned about all of the things that we are trying to do now. I never will forget that the first discussion that we had when we met was the whole question of racial injustice and economic injustice and the question of peace. And in her college days, she had been actively engaged in movements dealing with these problems. So that I must admit, I wish I could say, and satisfy my masculine ego, that I led her down this path. But I must say we went down together."
-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1967 interview (video here)
"You can't do all of it by yourself, but you can put together a coalition and get other people involved, or join organizations that are already involved, and continue to work to eradicate poverty, of course, since poverty is still with us, very much so. My husband--[it was] one of the triple evils that he talked about. Poverty, racism, and war. And of course, they all are forms of violence."
-- Coretta Scott King, 1999 interview (audio and video here)
"Gay and lesbian people have families and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay-bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages."
Martin Luther King Jr. met Coretta Scott as his equal, and she remained that, and much more, by his side, and after his death. Seeing after his legacy became a life's work for Coretta Scott King, along with raising his four children. Now that she's gone, at 78, will anyone defend her as zealously?
"My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle," wrote Martin Luther King. "In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope. I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Corrie, I could not have withstood the ordeals and tensions surrounding the movement."
The private story of Martin and Corrie, with all its own dark moments and hopefulness, has become a public mystery of the post-Civil Rights era. As Martin's extra-marital affairs passed into the historical record, Coretta only rarely dignified the subject with a denial.
In 1993, four years after Ralph Abernathy published his autobiography, which alleged that King had committed adultery the night before his murder, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that "the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference believes the Rev. Abernathy's allegation represented perhaps 'the single most traumatic event' for Mrs. King since her husband's death."
In the same article, Coretta responded to the assertion, saying it didn't bother her, "because I knew the man":
"I don't have any evidence of one instance of infidelity. Not one. Martin and I never had a discussion over this.
"And I am not a fool. I am a wise woman.... Martin had the strong sense of consciousness. It's like he was a person who was guilt-ridden if he ever did anything wrong [like] mistreating somebody; he had to reconcile that. If he had had serious relationships he would have had to tell me. He couldn't have lived with himself because he was serious about his religion...
"You see, you have to understand that I never was a jealous person. If you are jealous, you believe all of the gossip. But if you know someone and... you know, the average woman knows when something is going on with another woman because men change. I know enough about men to know that. [But] I don't know anything because Martin was always... I mean, I was always his wife and he respected me.
"So because Ralph [Abernathy] said it doesn't make it true for me. I mean, you know, Ralph needed to sell his book."
Coretta rarely addressed the subject at all after that. In 1995, when former Kentucky state legislator Georgia Davis Powers claimed she'd been with Martin the night before he was killed, Coretta remained silent.
I bring all this up now only because that old humiliation is the elephant in the room among those who honor Coretta's memory this week. By an unfortunate coincidence of timing, a new book by Taylor Branch (interview here), At Canaan's Edge, was published shortly before Coretta King's death, and not long after she suffered a stroke. Excerpted in Time, and artlessly quoted across the media, one passage covering January, 1968 describes a marriage in agony:
King's formidable armor wore down in midlife, draining assurance from his glib mantra as a young scholar that many great men of religion had been obsessed with sex--St. Augustine, St. Paul, Martin Luther, Kierkegaard, Tillich--and his self-reproach spilled over when Coretta underwent surgery for an abdominal tumor on January 24. He disclosed to her the one mistress who meant most to him since 1963--with intensity almost like a second family even though she lived in Los Angeles--a married alumna of Fisk, of dignified bearing like Coretta, but different. The result was painful disaster. Juanita Abernathy exploded with the fury of a trusted second that King picked Coretta's most vulnerable moment, just as she recovered from her hysterectomy, to ambush her sanctuary of willful, silent discretion. If he was truly desperate to be honest, she said, King should purge himself privately to God or a psychiatrist. [Ralph] Abernathy, back from Asia, grew so alarmed that he canvassed the regular mistresses for hidden fits of jealousy or romantic blackmail strong enough to break down the careful habit of secret, nonpossessive affairs, but he found no conventional clues to explain the rash new fatalism in King.
The argument could be made, on behalf of both Coretta and Martin, that none of this is any of our business. Branch cites "confidential interviews" for the "painful disaster" part; a 1984 interview with Ralph Abernathy for what comes after; and FBI wiretaps, along with David J. Garrow's 1986 book Bearing the Cross, for what comes before. As Garrow himself pointed out in the '80s, "What's unique about King's private life was not anything he did, but the extent it was surveilled and recorded. Only because of the FBI's obsession has it attained this sort of cultural status."
That said, the relationship that emerges from these various invasions of privacy is hardly a simple one. Coretta never left Martin, and he never left her. All four friends in the above passage spent a night together just days before King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As Branch records, drawing on published interviews and testimony,
King asked Abernathy to drop him off straight from the Atlanta airport at the downtown Butler Street YMCA, where he hoped a steam bath and rubdown from his blind masseur would revive him for a promised Friday night out with Coretta and the Abernathys. Shortly, however, he called Juanita Abernathy from the gym to say he did not feel like going to a restaurant or movie. "If I get some fish, will you cook it?" he asked. "Corrie will help you." She readily agreed, in part because he sounded so needy, and saved for a surprise her annual casserole of leftover pig dishes that he and Abernathy considered a sublime delicacy. That night, after the casserole and fish, the other three instinctively tried to divert King with light memories from Montgomery before the bus boycott, about church gossip and eager young couples. Although vacant and depressed, he seemed vaguely entertained and refused to go home. He fell asleep in his clothes on a love seat, grumbling that it was too small. Abernathy dozed nearby. Coretta, still tender from surgery, lay across a bed, and Juanita Abernathy slumped over a kitchen counter.
Whatever passed between Coretta and Martin near the end, it seems evident that she remained a powerful figure in his life. His spell was similarly permanent: She never remarried after his death, and lived in their house until she died.
"We'd talk all night," said Maya Angelou this week of her friend. "But whenever Martin King's name came up, no matter what we were talking about, her voice always dropped about three whole tones."
You can imagine that Coretta Scott King viewed her private pain as something she could never share with the world without becoming complicit in the effort to destroy her husband, his memory, and the movement he came to represent.
In 1975, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that, in late 1964, the FBI had sent King a tape from microphones hidden in a hotel room capturing "alleged unsavory activities" (per the New York Times), along with an anonymous note urging King to suicide. The FBI had also sent a tape to King's wife, "which one agent testified was an attempt to destroy Dr. King's marriage," according to the final report.
The tape was part of a well-documented 1960s FBI campaign against King, his family, and his friends--one that continued beyond King's slaying in 1968. The following year, according to the Church Committee investigation, the Bureau secretly lobbied the President, the Attorney General, and members of Congress to reject a national holiday for Martin Luther King. A 1969 FBI wiretap memo recorded Coretta worrying on the phone about a letter that warned her "she should not push for Jan. 15 being made a national holiday because persons have 'so much stuff' on Martin and will expose it."
Coretta pushed, anyway. Which left Republicans led by Senator Jesse Helms to use the ill-gotten FBI tapes (sealed by a 1977 court order until 2027) as unspoken blackmail leverage during a last-ditch 1983 effort to block passage of the King holiday. Claiming to seek existing evidence of King's Communism and Communist control, Helms demanded that all the FBI tapes and files be released immediately, and called on Coretta Scott King to cooperate. With her usual graceful reticence (she later insisted to Garrow that the 1964 tape was "just a lot of mumbo jumbo"), she simply replied that King had opposed Communism.
Helms lost his baseless court case, and the King holiday bill passed both houses, with President Ronald Reagan (who had opposed both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act) reluctantly signing it into law--though when asked if Helms was right, he joked, "We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?" After bitter public criticism from Coretta, the leader of the free world phoned her to apologize, and soon Republicans were claiming King's legacy as their own. (If this sorry episode has been written about somewhere in detail, let me know. Like most of Reagan's career, it's been forgotten.)
What kind of character could win this staring match and walk away making victory look inevitable in retrospect? One of strong will, for starters.
The life she devoted to the Movement was her own. Born on April 27, 1927, on her parents' farm in Perry County, Alabama, Coretta Scott was captivated by classical music in high school, thanks to one teacher, Miss Olive J. Williams, who passed along a love for Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Dorothy Maynor.
While studying music and education at Antioch, Scott became active in the peace movement, joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Young Progressives. In 1948, she attended the convention of the Progressive Party as a student delegate, supporting the now much-maligned Henry Wallace for president. At one political event, she even shared a stage with Paul Robeson (once considered for Wallace's running mate), who encouraged her to pursue a career in music.
When Coretta Scott met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1952, she was studying concert singing and violin at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. "He was studying for his doctorate in systematic theology," she said later. "He was going to go back South and pastor a Baptist Church, and he was looking for a wife. I wasn't looking for a husband, but he was a wonderful human being."
Skeptical of his pretentions at first, she soon warmed to his "intellectual jive," and they became a romantic match of radical minds, attending Unitarian services together in Boston, and talking politics. Six months after meeting her, the 23-year-old King was penning heady love prose--"My life without you is like a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter"--giving way to praise for Edward Bellamy's utopian socialism.
They were married on June 18, 1953, and had no place to go on their wedding night in segregated Alabama--they slept in the back of a funeral home with coffins. Her life with him was spent mostly in his shadow, in the corner of the photo as he was arrested, on his arm at the march, or with the children for a family photo op. And her life without him, though profoundly influential, was never appreciated quite on its own terms.
"We would not be celebrating the Martin Luther King holiday if not for her tireless efforts," points out King scholar Clayborne Carson (my old professor) in the San Jose Mercury News. "There would be no King Papers Project, no King Research and Education Institution, without her steadfast support over the years." (Here's the Stanford-based King Institution's own Coretta memorial.)
There was controversy over her push to grant James Earl Ray a trial in 1997--he had pleaded guilty to killing her husband and then recanted. But who could blame her for believing in a conspiracy? (Innocent or guilty, Ray died in 1998.) She was also criticized for mismanaging the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (a.k.a. the King Center), which she founded in 1968. Neglecting the Center's function as an archive, the widow appeared preoccupied with guarding MLK's voice and image, to the point of denying teacher's free access, while at the same time selling usage to companies such as Cingular Wireless and Alcatel.
"Much of her behavior of the past 15 years--all the crass or embarrassing commercial uses of his name or image--has its roots in the sense of privation she experienced when he was alive," said Garrow this week. "Not only did they not have any money, but Doc did not believe in spending money on the family and the household. He would spend money on food, good hotels, good suits, but that was about it."
But Coretta was always an activist first, something the media had little respect or feel for. She had marched for disarmament and a suspension of nuclear weapon tests in the early '60s, and joined the anti-Vietnam War movement early (as part of Women's Strive for Peace), far sooner than her husband felt he could. Only days after his death, she flew to Memphis with three of her children to lead thousands in a march for the sanitation workers.
She had always been there beside him, ready to speak when he couldn't. "I'm more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality," she said soon after the assassination. Her quiet, sad smile became an icon of progressive endurance.
"She was a model of dignity," said Taylor Branch this week on NPR's Talk of the Nation (audio here):
"Which some people mistook for a kind of regality and queenliness, as a defense mechanism, at a time when that sort of dignity was vital for the people in the movement who were shorn of dignity.
"So her dignity, I think, was of a very, very important resource. In the church, she was called the First Lady of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. She was later called the First Lady of Civil Rights, and I do think that it was a refuge for a lot of people."
After the Civil Rights years, Coretta vocally opposed capital punishment, South African fascism, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She co-chaired the National Committee for Full Employment in the '70s and was named by Jimmy Carter to serve as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. She became a prominent advocate for Planned Parenthood, AIDS/HIV prevention, and GLBT human rights.
"I think that's the great war of, within her," said Branch:
"To some degree, she's withdrawn, but I think she was very much committed to nonviolence. She insisted on putting that in the mission and in the title of the Center. She's one of the ones, she saw clearly the applications of nonviolence beyond traditional race issues to issues of war and peace and even to nonviolence of the spirit with regard to gay people, and she was the member of the family most out front there on the gay rights movement, and there's division within the family in the next generation.
"Some of them are in the other direction. So, I think Coretta was very, very sturdy in her understanding of how central nonviolence was to, not only the spiritual, but the democratic mission of her husband's movement."
UPDATES: Video of Coretta Scott King's funeral, and right-wing reaction. Taylor Branch appeared on C-Span Book TV Sunday, Feb 5, from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Central Time. At 4:00 p.m. Central the same day, Bruce A. Henry, Debbie Duncan, Gwen Matthews, and the University of Minnesota's African Music Ensemble play a free event: Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute Concert: Music for Martin, in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King III's Monday appearance at Coffman has been postponed. Apparently, the clinic where Coretta died closed soon after, under suspicious circumstances. Harry Belafonte talks about being disinvited from speaking at Coretta's funeral.
Coretta Scott King links:
Achievement.org Coretta Scott King page
Coretta Scott King Wikipedia page
The King Center
The King Institution at Stanford
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Search the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Search the Los Angeles Times
I need the glory (a week of national exposure): Check Pg. 35 of the February issue of Jane Magazine for praise of Complicatedfun.com ("Tastemaking journalist Peter Scholtes, from local alt-weekly City Pages, who is not at all concerned with being a tastemaker"); the March issue of XXL for my Lil' Flip concert review; the new Pazz & Jop poll for my comments; and the ILE thread Is using the word "gay" to mean "lame" sort of homophobic? for my posts.