I have read articles and book chapters about the marriage between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, two of the most prominent figures of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I have learned interesting facts about how they met and their courtship, and I have been made privy to various allegations of extramarital affairs (on both sides).
A 2006 New York Times article gives the following background on the beginning of their story:
She was studying music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1952 when she met a young graduate student in philosophy, who on their first date told her: "The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all." A year later, she and Dr. King, then a young minister from a prominent Atlanta family, were married, beginning a remarkable partnership that ended with his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Image: Public domain, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
It was not that simple, however, because Coretta was a woman with her own mind and objectives:
While studying music, she met King, then pursuing a PhD at Boston University. "... he was looking for a wife. I wasn't looking for a husband, but he was a wonderful human being," she told an interviewer. "I still resisted his overtures, but after he persisted, I had to pray about it ... I had a dream, and in that dream, I was made to feel that I should allow myself to be open and stop fighting the relationship. That's what I did, and of course the rest is history. " (Source)
"I had a dream," said Coretta. Ahh, the power of dreams.
The Kings would go on to have four children, all of whom were very young when Martin was assassinated in 1968, fifteen years after Coretta and Martin were married. In those years, Martin would vault to international notoriety being both loved and hated by those who knew him well and those who knew next to nothing about him. He would answer the call to become a freedom fighter for those forced to live under the weight of systemic oppression. He would work with many people, the often unsung heroes of the Movement, to fight against racism and classism and for the rights of all human beings to be treated as equal. Most of us are familiar with his legacy, but we are not as familiar with his love. for his wife and his family
What I have noticed, is that most of the stories are told from the perspective of Dr. King being the central figure with Coretta being the supportive "woman behind the man." I find this narrative to be true of almost any prominent male figure in a leadership role; his partner (usually wife) is relegated to being the support behind him in an almost footnoted fashion. Certainly, Coretta Scott King was no mere footnote in King's legacy, and her love for Martin may have been the saving grace the entire movement.
MARTIN LOVED CORETTA
In a letter to his pregnant wife, King empathetically writes:
I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to, especially in the condition of your pregnancy, but as I said to you yesterday, this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people. So I urge you to be strong in faith, and in turn this will strengthen me. [...] If I am correct, then our suffering is not in vain.
Despite having been arrested (one of 30 times) and locked away in a Georgia jail, King felt it a priority to reach out to wife and assure her that she was in his thoughts and in his heart, and that without her, he would not be able to endure this. He asked her to bear the burden with him for the greater good of all those who relied on his work and the work of countless others to push forward a movement that would change America, and perhaps the world.
That's a lot to ask of one's spouse, particularly when that spouse married you before all of the grand talk of changing the world by fighting for the freedoms of Black Americans, or allegedly becoming the target of the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI, and being attacked by so many others (including his own people) came into account.
Did Coretta sign up for that? Did she know what she was getting into, and how she would be subjected to a life of anxiety and fear? We don't know, but what we do know is that she willingly agreed to stick it out and work right alongside her husband until the end.
In an interview with Alex Haley for Playboy Magazine, King made it known that this was a cause he was going to fight until the end. When asked about death threats, King seemed to focus on other, more important matters:
King:It's difficult to trace the authorship of these death threats. I seldom go through a day without one. Some are telephoned anonymously to my office; others are sent—unsigned, of course—through the mails. Drew Pearson wrote not long ago about one group of unknown affiliation that was committed to assassinate not only me but also Chief Justice Warren and President Johnson. And not long ago, when I was about to visit in Mississippi, I received some very urgent calls from Negro leaders in Mobile, who had been told by a very reliable source that a sort of guerrilla group led by a retired major was plotting to take my life during the visit. I was strongly urged to cancel the trip, but when I thought about it, I decided that I had no alternative but to go on into Mississippi.
King: Because I have a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn't function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do
Haley: Do you intend to dedicate the rest of your life, then, to the Negro cause?
King: If need be, yes. But I dream of the day when the demands presently cast upon me will be greatly diminished. I would say that in the next five years, though, I can't hope for much letup—either in the South or in the North. After that time, it is my hope that things will taper off a bit.
CORETTA LOVED MARTIN
Imagine your beloved husband wanting to do what God called him to do, to do what he knew in his heart and soul was the right thing to do, only to face such opposition that he became a moving target, his life an open book for millions to read and critique, and his marriage, to you, fodder for speculation, attack, and ridicule.
Imagine scrambling for peaceful moments in the evening, in your own home, feeding him food you cooked, and not knowing the next time you'll be able to do so. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to a phone call telling you that your husband has again been arrested and jailed because he dared assert that you and millions like you have the right to be free. Imagine not being able to hear his laughter for days, weeks, months on end. Imagine your home being subjected to bomb threats and late night drive-by attacks as you put your children to bed, alone. Imagine the phone ringing countless times, answering it only to hear hissing allegations and threats on the other end. Imagine longing for his warm touches and caresses to soothe your fears and warm your soul.
Imagine waiting for some word, any word, from your beloved that he is alive, that he is still on this Earth with you and being afraid to close your eyes because you fear waking up and learning that he is not.
Now, imagine, as CNN reported in 2008, your husband receiving threatening suggestions from the government itself that he take his own life—or his extramarital affairs would be made public, in an attempt to bring him, and the entire movement, down.
Imagine learning that the government so hated his attempts to help your people gain equality that they would seek to shame him, and you, by exposing alleged infidelities you may or may not have been aware of until those threats were received. Imagine the sinking feeling that might be a mix of betrayal, sorrow, confusion, and grief ... or maybe something completely different.
Maybe Coretta was aware and loved him anyhow. Maybe her love for her husband and father of her four children, for her people and her country, were far greater than the weight of hearing such allegations. Maybe her faith in the destiny that God created for her strengthened her more than anything ,and maybe it guided her to remain steadfast in her commitment to the man she loved because she knew her love would sustain an entire movement.
Whatever took place during that time was between Coretta and Martin, and I argue that it should remain between them, taken to the graves where their earthly bodies now rest. I want to focus more on the endurance of their commitment to each other and to the "Negro Cause."
I want to focus on the strength of the woman who was left to raise four children without their father because the country was not ready to accept her children's right to freedom and equality. I want to focus on the bravery of the woman who took up her husband's mantle when he was killed and spent the rest of her life honoring the love that the two of them shared by upholding his legacy as only his wife could.
Coretta loved Martin. Martin loved Coretta. The Kings loved each other and they believed in everything America could be at her very best. They dreamed about it together and moved forward together, propelled by love, to help America reach her fullest potential. Written on Coretta's burial crypt is a passage from I Corinthians 13:13, which reads:
"And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
If theirs isn't one of the greatest examples of the power of Love, I don't know what is.