The lonely journey of Coretta Scott King

As the bearer of the legacy of a great leader, her tragedy would forever remain fresh.

coretta scott king 88 (photo credit: )
coretta scott king 88
(photo credit: )
It seemed almost providential to be reading the third and final installment of Taylor Branch's magisterial biography of Martin Luther King, Canaan's Edge when I learned that Coretta Scott King had died Tuesday morning at age 78. As someone who has derived a significant portion of his life's inspiration from the life and especially the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had always wanted to meet Mrs. King. I had the rare pleasure and honor of doing so when I delivered a lecture at the Martin Luther King Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where Coretta and her son, Martin Luther King III, were in attendance. This was a meeting on student activism and leadership, where I was one of the featured speakers on the subject of heroism. Mrs. King's presence was the highlight of the convention. I was able to speak to her briefly, and a number of things became immediately clear. First, she was genuinely enthralled by young people. The civil rights movement was, after all, a young person's movement. Coretta came to life around youth. She was extremely warm and personable, and her accessibility belied her living-legend status as the great mother of the civil rights movement. She smiled warmly at all the students who surrounded her; her charm was infectious. It was almost as if, talking with students, she was relieved to be able to interact with real people who didn't treat her as a mythical figure. I also remember thinking how beautiful she was, especially at age 75. She had aged with such dignity and grace, one could almost see her inner glow. MEETING CORETTA Scott King was like meeting a piece of history. I had read so much about the civil rights movement as one of the most important events in modern American history, and then, there in front of me, was this magnificent woman who had seen it all, experienced it firsthand. I was standing in the presence of the woman who had marched at Martin Luther King's side from Selma to Montgomery in March, 1965, the woman who had borne his children. e forget that Coretta Scott King was a woman in her mid-thirties, young and beautiful, when her husband was taken away from her and that she had been alone ever since. She faced the same difficult choice Jackie Kennedy faced. When you're married to a legend that dies in tragic circumstances, can you remarry and get away with it? Will the public forgive you? Will you forgive yourself? Are you betraying his legacy? Jackie Kennedy tried, and was really never forgiven by the America people for marrying Aristotle Onassis. But even her husband never headed a movement. It was clear that Coretta Scott King could never marry anyone else. She was wedded to her husband's legacy and was the matriarch of the civil rights movement. She would forever remain Mrs. King - and that meant an inspired life, but one of many solitary decades. She became a permanent widow, whose tragedy would forever remain fresh. BEHIND EVERY iconic figure is a real person who must cope with his or her own human frailty and loneliness. Coretta Scott King had to raise four children on her own. By now, some of the internal problems of the King family are legend, and who can blame these children, who lost their hero father under such tragic circumstances, for growing up without strong direction? In addition, Coretta Scott King then had to live with the pain of Ralph Abernathy having inexplicably revealed King's extramarital affairs. So now not only was she living without her husband, the whole world was reading about him as the perfect saint whose only sin was against his perfectly loyal wife. Perhaps finally, in her death, people will realize that she too was martyred, that a large part of her also died with that bullet from James Earl Ray's gun. Maybe we will finally recognize the sacrifice of the women behind the great men, those who keep watch at home while their husbands go out and save the world, perforce neglecting their own families. Maybe we will finally understand that the expression "Behind every great man there is an even greater woman" means that without her, he simply could not have been a great man. Coretta Scott King facilitated and continued her husband's great dreams. We are all the beneficiaries of the burden she bore with such grace and dignity. The writer, an author, is the host of The Learning Channel's upcoming series, Shalom in the Home.