“Selma” delivers a powerful dramatization of the bloody civil rights march in Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The depiction has received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but has been criticized for various deviations from historical fact. Supporters of President Lyndon Johnson have decried his portrayal as an antagonist who only reluctantly supported the Voting Rights Act after attempting to obstruct the Selma effort. Even George Wallace Jr. has spoken out, insisting that his father, the former governor of Alabama, never advocated violence against the marchers (a contention difficult to believe given the level of brutality recorded that day). But all the criticism has overlooked the particularly troubling mischaracterization of one of the movement’s most critical players – Coretta Scott King. The movie presents a Coretta who exists under a fog of fear as she endures the terror of Selma. It portrays a Coretta who blames her husband for leaving the family during his trips to lead the movement. It shows a Coretta who timidly acquiesces to the charges that her husband dishonored their marriage vows and tearfully asks if he loves his mistresses. That Coretta is pure Hollywood fiction.
The film’s misrepresentation of Coretta continues a disservice done to her life and accomplishments in many accounts of the Civil Rights era. She was not a tormented victim. She was more than an accessory to her iconic husband’s story. Before Coretta met Martin, she was a student activist in the peace movement at Antioch College. She protested the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, before Martin took up the controversial stance. For example, in 1965, she addressed a major peace rally against the war in Madison Square Garden, the only woman to do so. In 1962, she went to the Disarmament Conference in Switzerland as a delegate of Women Strike for Peace, a group formed by Bella Abzug. And not only did she march with Martin in Selma, she later moved her children into a squalid Chicago tenement to dramatize the pathos of poverty. Even after Martin was assassinated in 1968, she remained a brave activist in her own right. She was an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights, fearlessly defying many Christian leaders.
But this image of Coretta, as a strong-willed woman independently committed to the global struggle for human rights, is often missing in characterizations of her. It wasn’t perpetuated only by the media and outsiders. After her husband’s death, Coretta bravely and graciously warded off attempts by the male-dominated black leadership to sideline her. This was characteristic of the civil rights movement, which often obstructed women from public leadership roles. The flawed narrative that marginalized Coretta in life continues to diminish her role after her death.
During my 30 years knowing her, Coretta made it clear that she was troubled by her wholly incomplete public image. “I hope someday people will see Coretta,” she told me. “Often, I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner: the wife of Martin, then the widow of Martin, all of which I was proud to be. But I was never just a wife, nor a widow. I was always more than a label.”
I met Coretta Scott King in the 1970s, when I was working as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. I interviewed her for news articles, traveled with her on a trip to visit her parents in Marion, Alabama in 1980, and watched her children grow up. Beginning in 2000, I sat with her periodically to record her accounts of her experiences, producing 1,000 pages of transcripts that I have turned into a biography that I plan to publish later this year.
During those interviews, she insisted that she had felt a calling from an early age. Growing up in the Klan-controlled South, she was no stranger to terror. She saw her family home and her father’s sawmill burned to the ground. But she also saw her father refusing to live in fear and bitterness, a value system reinforced by her Methodist upbringing. Her resilient attitude easily fused with Martin’s, who learned from his father that nothing should make anyone stoop low enough to hate.
It was the bombing of her home in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1955 bus boycott, that assured Coretta that she could withstand any dangers that were placed in her path. She was home with a neighbor and her baby, Yolanda, when the bomb blew off their front porch. She said her father wanted her to move back home with him and her mother, but she stood her ground, fearing that moving the family would disrupt the movement. While committed to her roles as a wife and a mother, Coretta knew that there was an even larger purpose for her life. “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,” she said. “I was not only married to Martin, but to the movement. I found a cause not only to live for, but to die for.”
In the face of great resistance from much of the movement’s male leadership, she worked tirelessly to perpetuate King’s legacy and build the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Ga. During South Africa’s groundbreaking democratic election in 1994, the center trained thousands of poll monitors and others on the principles of nonviolence and direct-action techniques. Coretta is also credited with being the first person in the United States to organize and lead a campaign for a national holiday honoring an unelected official, establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the third Monday of January. She lobbied the government for 15 years, calling personally on almost every U.S. Senator, and organizing a diverse group of arts, sports, union, and political groups in support. In 1980, she became a regular commentator on CNN, championing the cause of global human rights, and in 1986, she began a syndicated column for The New York Times Syndicate Sales Corp.
Despite this great resilience, one of Coretta’s most painful struggles was seeing her marriage maligned by persistent charges that her husband was unfaithful. The reports of infidelity were addressed in a major scene in “Selma,” when the Coretta Scott King played by Carmen Ejogo weepily asks Martin, “Did you love the others?” This is not something Coretta would have said. Though Martin’s alleged affairs have become part of his story, Coretta never accepted it. When Ralph Abernathy wrote about Martin’s alleged adultery in his 1989 autobiography, Coretta insisted it was simply an effort to boost book sales. Not only did she vehemently insist that there were no “others,” she certainly never addressed the issue with the weepy resignation portrayed in Selma. She argued that the image of Martin as an unfaithful husband was part of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s ongoing campaign to nullify his influence by destroying his marriage — and his life.
Coretta said she did receive a tape recording at her home in January 1965, a package she later learned was sent by the FBI. As portrayed in the movie, it is widely reported that the tape contained sexual sounds that were meant to incriminate Martin. But Coretta disputes that history. “When I listened to the tape, it had nothing to do with my husband having sex. It was a loud social function with people telling dirty jokes, nothing like what I have seen reported in the press,” she told me.
Despite these and other historic distortions, “Selma” has won a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song). Its misrepresentations might not bother those who buy the premise that moviemakers are not historians; that their mission is to entertain rather than educate, to dramatically pursue a riveting story regardless of its truth. But it is wrong for storytellers to engage in open miseducation, to fictionalize our heroes. Doing so robs real people of their historic truth, particularly when those people can no longer defend themselves. Sadly, it’s often easy to popularize a myth when it packs more drama than the truth, and the more often an untruth is told, the harder it is to counter it.
To be fair, Ava DuVernay, “Selma’s” talented African-American director, has invited her critics to “investigate major historical moments themselves.” Unfortunately only a very few have the resources to do this and are gifted enough to bring those events to worldwide audiences. This is why it is so incumbent on the anointed storytellers, those who do have that power, to reflect history accurately. The most dramatic and popularized storylines often are not the truth.
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