The recent dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. monument offered a splendid tribute, crowned by President Barack Obama linking his presidency to the martyred human rights leader.
The centerpiece of the monument on the National Mall is a towering 30 foot statue of Dr. King carved out of stone. It is a grandiose salute to a man who--without an army, weapons or a national treasury--commanded a war so unlike that of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln who are enshrined in memorials nearby.
But there is a glaring omission: any mention of the words and deeds of Coretta Scott King
Dr. King commanded a spiritual army that helped liberate the heart and soul of America from its deepest hatred and molded it into a liberation movement for freedom and dignity that resounds around the world.
Coretta King was his other half. She did more than anyone else to advance his legacy. And, dare I say, if it were not for this woman by his side, his legacy would never have risen to such heroic proportions.
Somewhere on that vast four acres there should be a statue, a bust, a plaque or something showing that she was a co-partner in this great freedom movement. (She died on Jan. 30, 2006.) Why not a mention of her on the monuments wall of great quotes? He once said, “In every campaign if Coretta was not with me, she was only a heartbeat away.”
As I started interviewing Mrs. King in the mid-1970’s, it was clear that she did not see herself as an appendage or a footnote in history. She often emphasized that she was more than a wife during Dr. King’s life and more than a widow after his death. She once told me “My story is a freedom song of struggle. It is about finding one’s purpose, how to overcome fear and to stand up for causes bigger than one’s self.”
In fact, one of Coretta’s most cherished quotes symbolizes what kind of woman she was. Horace Mann, the founder of Antioch College, her alma mater, once said, “If you have not found a cause to die for, you have not found a reason to live.”
Those were not mere words to her. Coretta lived at a time when she virtually had to have the faith of a prophet and nerves of steel. During the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, carloads of Ku Klux Klan drove through black housing sections. The Kings received constant threatening calls. On January 30, she was in the house with her infant daughter, Yolanda, when their house was bombed.
“We could have been killed but it was just not our time to die,” she told me.
Despite the terrorism and the pleas of her parents to leave Montgomery, Coretta stayed with Martin until the 369-day boycott successfully ended.
“During the bus boycott I was tested by fire and I came to understand that I was not a breakable crystal figurine,” she said. “If I had been fragile and fearful, this would have been too much a distraction for Martin. Certainly his concern for my safety and that of the children would have prevented him from staying focused on the movement. But he came to understand he could trust me with trouble. In Montgomery, I was tested and found I became stronger in a crisis.”
In 1968, the test turned to heart break. On April 4, Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis while campaigning for the rights of striking garbage workers. During the national upheaval and riots following the assassination, much of the nation was awed by her poise and inner strength as she took her slain husband’s place and led the march.
“What most did not understand then was that I was not only married to the man I loved, but I was also married to the movement that I loved,” she said.
In taped interviews, Mrs. King told me how after her husband’s death her faith gave her the strength to raise her four children and to build a world-class center in Atlanta to continue the non-violent work of Dr. King. This move brought her into a bitter contention with some of Dr. King’s chief aides who had their own agendas for self-promotion and tried unsuccessfully to push Mrs. King out of the way.
In Atlanta, she led an effort to redevelop deteriorated neighborhoods that helped create the diversity that attracted the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Center, King’s birth home and his gravesite--where both Kings are entombed--draws thousands of tourists each year and has helped Atlanta become the spiritual Mecca of America, according to Steve Klein, communications director of the Center.
After successfully raising funds for the center, Mrs. King started lobbying for the King Holiday Bill. Only a sentence or a phrase is ever used to describe this effort that took more than 15 years of years of hard-core organizing. It took 6 million signatures, intense lobbying from state to state and organizing by civil rights supporters in Congress and in the streets to pass the legislation to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. It was signed into law on Nov. 2, 1983.
As she worked to institutionalize her husband’s legacy, Mrs. King emerged as an incomparable human rights spokesmen in her own right. “Where ever there was injustice, war, discrimination against women, gays and the disadvantaged, I did my best to show up and exert moral persuasion,” she said.
Coretta King and Martin Luther King were two souls with one goal of giving their lives to create a Beloved Community where all people would have dignity and justice. Telling one story without the other creates a flaw and imbalance, a scar on history. It would be shameful for this not to be corrected.
Dr. Barbara A. Reynolds, the author of six books, including “Jesse Jackson: America’s David,” is working on a biography of Coretta Scott King. An ordained minister, she is a former columnist and editorial board member of USA Today.