Coretta Scott King, the Woman Who Stood Alone
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
At home in Atlanta, Coretta Scott King was someone who hovered on the periphery. Growing up there, I'd spot her at celebrations commemorating her husband's birthday, a national holiday she had made happen, or at the rare ballet concert or arts event. She always seemed to be operating in some official context: regal, tall, beautiful. Aloof.
She was in Atlanta, living there for decades, a civil rights royal with an insistence about her husband's memory that caused an uneasy alliance with her adopted city. Still, she was never really of Atlanta. To understand the difference is to understand the exclusivity of old Atlanta's black bourgeoisie, which didn't take easily to a newcomer who didn't hail from the same stock, even if that husband of hers did win the Nobel Peace Prize.
For all her prominence in the world outside, she was a bit of an outsider in her own town. Whether Atlanta society didn't embrace her or she didn't embrace it is hard to say. But she wasn't likely to be spotted hanging out at a Links cotillion or ringing in the new year with the Boule or enrolling her children in Jack & Jill.
She had other things to do.
Hers was the weight of the widow, a woman for whom a legacy became a profession, a fierce drive to keep the past alive and yank it into the present, a constant vigilance lest others forget. From the moment of that funeral in 1968, where she was snapped in that iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, stoical, grieving, holding her youngest close, she wrapped herself in widow's weeds. After the funeral, her widow wear morphed into a tasteful pantsuit and ruffled blouse, her lush hair always swept off her face, freeze-framed in controlled waves. In 2003, Oprah Winfrey dragged her onto her TV show and gave her a makeover, freeing the hair a bit, brightening the makeup just a tad. It was a shock to realize how pretty she was, how young and vibrant she looked when she smiled.
We didn't get to see her smile much.
Hers was the legacy of enduring. She was a pre-approved bride, selected by a young Martin when the two were in school in Boston and he, as a young minister, was under pressure from his parents to marry, and marry well. She had the proper criteria: daughter of a farmer with ambition; raised in Marion, Ala.; educated at Antioch College and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston; a singer trained in the classics; a buttoned-up lady. (Still, she wasn't above getting down in the dirt with farm workers and picking a row of cotton.) She was of the generation and class of African American women for whom comportment was everything, women who took to heart the admonishment to keep legs crossed and head up. Sexuality was subsumed in the quest to uplift the race.
Perhaps her aloofness was part of her civil rights defense.
From the moment she married her preacher, theirs was a public marriage. She was the elegant beauty by his side, at rallies, waiting for him outside jail, their union recorded for all to see: Off to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Holding their babies as they walk to church with his parents, dressed in their Sunday best. Even then, she knew to don a mask. Every now and then, we got a rare glimpse of the woman, not the wife: riding with her two oldest to school in 1965, the year they desegregated Georgia's public schools. She is looking over her shoulder at her young charges, and is sharp in shades and red lipstick. In that moment, she looks pretty, hip even. Happy.
I look at her pictures and wonder how much happiness she knew. Even before her husband died, she was enduring: bombings of their Montgomery, Ala., home; the death threats; the FBI's exposure of her husband's infidelities. Then her husband was gunned down at a Tennessee motel, and her life abruptly shifted shape. She never married again.
Perhaps she found solace with other women who, too, were The Wife, wives and widows of famous men: Jackie Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Myrlie Evers, Betty Shabazz. There is a photo of Coretta with Winnie Mandela. It is 1986, and the women are in South Africa. Winnie's husband is in prison. Coretta's is dead. They've just greeted each other and they stand facing each other, lips barely touching. It's a kiss of solidarity, of recognition. And I can't help but think that maybe Coretta felt most at home away from home.
The pedestal can be a lonely place.
I was a teenager the one time we met, and, as meetings go, it was a brief one. I wanted to meet her because, well, she was Coretta Scott King. I mentioned my family's connection to her -- my grandfather was once the King family doctor -- and walked away, feeling that, well, now, I've just been dismissed. Politely.
My mother, Yvonne, worked with her several years ago in Atlanta. Coretta agreed to serve as honorary chairwoman when my mother organized a fundraiser for a women's shelter. Like me, my mother's encounters with her had been checking her out from afar. Over the years, Coretta and her children had come under considerable fire for the chaotic state of affairs of the King Center, an organization she founded in 1968 to perpetuate her husband's legacy. They'd communicated through Coretta's assistant but had never met face to face until the night of the event. My mother wasn't quite sure what to expect of this woman who had held herself at such a distance.
She was surprised to find a woman who was warm, sweet and very concerned. And she was touched, she remembers, to see a woman used to decades of international presentations looking quite nervous as she waited to give her speech.
Coretta made her last public appearance last month at "Salute to Greatness," a dinner and fundraiser to benefit the King Center. She was pushed out in a wheelchair, and someone helped her stand. This time, she didn't speak. The stroke she'd suffered last year had taken care of that. Instead, she stood, smiling a little, kissing her children. Looking beautiful with her Oprahed hairdo.
Her husband's fiery rhetoric and formidable charisma helped create generations of children and grandchildren of the civil rights movement, people who never knew what it was to be pushed to the back of the bus. And then she went on without him, and mothered his children and carried on the work. She never had any grandchildren of her own.