It seemed almost providential to be reading the third and final installment of Taylor Branch’s magisterial biography of Martin Luther King, “At Canaan’s Edge,” when I learned that Coretta Scott King had died, Tuesday morning, at age 78.
As a man who has derived a significant portion of his life’s inspiration from the life and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., I had always wanted to meet Mrs. King and I had the rare pleasure and honor of doing so when I was invited to deliver a lecture at the Martin Luther King Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., where Mrs. King and her son, Martin Luther King III, were in attendance. This was a convention on student activism and leadership, where I was one of the featured speakers on the subject of heroism, and Mrs. King’s presence was the highlight of the convention.
I was able to speak with her briefly, and a number of things became immediately clear. First, Mrs. King was genuinely enthralled by young people. The civil-rights movement was, after all, a young person’s movement. She came to life around youth. She was extremely warm and personable, and her accessibility belied her living-legend, marble-sculpture status, as the great mother of the civil-rights movement. She smiled warmly at all the students who surrounded her, and 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, and one could almost see an inner glow about her.
Meeting Coretta Scott King was like meeting a piece of history. It was as if someone like Martha Washington had survived through to present times. I had read so much about the civil-rights movement as one of the most important events in modern American history, and then here in front of me was this magnificent woman who had seen it all, and experienced it first hand, in living flesh. The woman who had marched at the side – literally – of Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. The woman who had born his children. Here I was and here she was. I was standing in her presence.
As a man whose parents divorced when he was 8-years old, whose mother was only 32 when she became single again – and remained alone for nearly 30 years (my mother just recently entered into a relationship with a fine gentleman, thank God) – I know something of what it is like for a woman to experience that kind of loneliness, to have to raise her kids on her own with no male support. We forget that Coretta Scott King was a woman in her mid 30s, young and beautiful, when her husband was taken away from her and she had been alone ever since.
She faced the same difficult choice that Jackie Kennedy faced. When you’re married to a legend who 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? Are you betraying his admirers? 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, a permanent widow whose tragedy would forever remain fresh.
Behind every marble icon is a real person, who still has to make the effort to understand and fathom 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 alone without her husband, but the whole world was reading about her husband as the perfect saint whose only sin was against his perfectly loyal wife. Yet, amazingly, throughout all these years she retained such incredible dignity and was the most loyal wife to a man who could physically no longer be at her side. We can barely fathom that plight, having to maintain the legacy, having to live alone, having to raise the kids, having to remain human while becoming a legend.
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. Maybe we will finally recognize the sacrifice of the women behind the men, who keep watch at home while their great husbands go out and save the world, perforce neglecting their own families. Maybe we’ll finally recognize that the famous expression, “Behind every great man there is an even greater woman,” really means, not that she is literally behind her man, but rather that without her he could not have been a great man. That because these great men know they have great women behind them – tending to the home front, looking after the children, doing the housework – that they can go confidently out into the world and dream their grand dreams.
Coretta Scott King facilitated and made possible her husband’s dreams and we are all the beneficiaries of the pain and burden she bore with such solemn grace and such quiet dignity.