The Real Coretta Scott King

By Barbara A. Reynolds
Saturday, February 4, 2006

It was, of course, accurate to label Coretta Scott King the wife or widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But in her own eyes, the label obscured who she really was.

Before she met her husband, she had traveled internationally, crusading for world peace, arriving at that juncture before Dr. King did. During the marriage, she saw herself as a partner, not as an afterthought or an appendage. After her husband's death, she was a warrior figure pushing aside male-dominated leadership to perpetuate Dr. King's legacy by building the King Center and achieving a national holiday honoring him.

In taped interviews over a two-year period, Mrs. King poured out a much different version of her life than the public one of a grieving widow living in the shadow of a heroic husband. As I worked on her yet-unpublished memoirs, she talked candidly, struggling to eject herself from a context that has long been misunderstood.

The interviews grew out of a long-standing relationship that started 30 years ago, when I was assigned to write a magazine cover story about her for the Chicago Tribune. I was there when she was poring over blueprints representing her vision for a King Center, even as some male counterparts condemned her for pursuing such an effort. I was there in the basement of their home when a teary-eyed Martin Luther King III showed me the bike his father bought him but never lived to see him ride. Recently I traveled with Mrs. King, a strict vegan, to a weight-loss center in Florida, where, for a week, we ate nothing but raw vegetables. For years she never forgot to send me a birthday card. I received my last in August.

So you see, she was not only my mentor but my friend, and I know that she wanted to set the record straight.

"Before I was a King, I was a Scott," she said. "We were landowners and independent thinkers. If I had been a weak, fearful woman, Martin would have been forced to pull back or curtail some of his campaigns, but I brought to the marriage a spirit of not only my mother's discernment but my father's strength.

"I was a partner in the movement. When whites bombed our home in Montgomery, Alabama, I was in the home with my infant daughter. We could have been killed, but I refused to give in to fear, because I had a wonderful role model, my father, Obadiah, who, like Martin, was one of the most fearless men I ever met."

Mrs. King was no stranger to terrorism. In 1942, as a child, she had seen her home on the outskirts of Marion, Ala., burned to the ground by whites on Thanksgiving Eve.

"Through it all my father never hated those who did that terrible thing," she said. "He just picked himself up and fearlessly started over again. My burned-out home prepared me for the fires next time in Montgomery. My father, like his father before him, served as the preacher's steward and chairman of the trustee board of our African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. His example of forgiveness deepened my understanding of the commitment needed to face and eventually triumph with love over hate.

"I had no problem being the wife of Martin, but I was never just a wife. In the 1950s, as a concert singer, I performed 'freedom concerts' raising funds for the movement. I ran my household, raised my children, and spoke out on world issues. Maybe people didn't know that I was always an activist because the media wasn't watching. I once told Martin that although I loved being his wife and a mother, if that was all I did I would have gone crazy. I felt a calling on my life from an early age. I knew I had something to contribute to the world. The movement and building the King Center, speaking out on important causes, that is what God called me to do. I was married to the man whom I loved, but I was also married to the movement. . . . I've had the honor of working alongside America's greatest spiritual and moral leader. I never saw my own life as personal, outside of the collective good. I never separated my love of family, church and community."

Coretta King behaved with the dignity of royalty, a quality also often misunderstood. "I carried myself in the ladylike fashion that I had learned from my mother, who always behaved with great dignity. In the South, since black women were so disrespected by whites, our response was to push our shoulders back, keep our head high and walk with dignity and look as if we had oil wells in our backyard. As a budding concert singer, poise and decorum were simply tools of the art, which unfortunately can be mistaken for stiffness or for trying to be a prima donna. However, as someone from the rural South without many cultural advantages, who picked cotton as a child, I have never had any problems identifying with my own heritage. I knew for certain that no matter how far I would climb, I could never forget my origins or look down upon the kind of people who were my own."

As we celebrate the life of Coretta Scott King, let us celebrate her as she saw herself: a woman of substance, a partner in "the dream," a freedom fighter in her own right who helped institutionalize the memory of Dr. King for all people for generations to come.

The writer is an ordained minister, an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Divinity and author of several books, including, "No I Won't Shut Up," with a foreword by Mrs. King.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company