Saturday, February 11, 2006

An Appreciation: Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)

An Appreciation: Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)
By Jelani Cobb, Special to AOL Black Voices

When the young Coretta Scott sang publicly, she stood erect and clasped her hands before her, a model of grace, quiet self-assurance and refinement. Those who were fortunate enough to witness her performance had a unique window into the next five decades of her life.

Historian Darlene Clark Hine has written that black women leaders have a long tradition of "dissemblance" -- constructing a public persona that serves the race's need for an "ideal black woman" and simultaneously leaving the true individual protected from the antagonism of a racially hostile society. The recognized faces of Mary Church Terrell or Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Ella Baker as the representative of the race leave us wondering generations later, who Ida or Mary or Ella really was. The paradox is that the more we see of this individual, the less we actually know about her.

We saw a great deal of Coretta Scott, perhaps more than anyone else in these years and with her death we are not only left bereft of our most vital link to Martin, but also made profoundly aware of how little we knew or understood her. The third act of her life -- the one that followed her years as an Alabama farm girl and as a famous preacher's wife, the one that began on April 4, 1968 -- was a public performance that she played with the same grace, quiet self-assurance and refinement.

If you were able to get beyond the official Coretta, you would have seen the woman whose roots lay in rural Alabama. Her family, unlike most other black Alabamans, owned their own land. But Coretta Scott was not a product of the rural gentry. Few would have known that the closest thing to a first lady of black America had grown up picking cotton. Few would have known that she continued to reside in the same working-class community where she and Martin had lived together.

She was a graduate of Antioch College pursuing a graduate degree in music when Martin King, the brash, smooth-tongued city boy from Atlanta cold-called her. King had been given her number by a mutual friend and within moments got her to agree to have lunch with him. Coretta endured the open hostility of Martin's father (who had selected another woman for him to marry) and his wedding-day attempt to dissuade them from going through with their marriage plans. As a young wife, she struggled with Martin's refusal to agree with her desire to use her education outside the home (an issue that, interestingly enough, also became a source of conflict between Betty Shabazz, who held a nursing degree, and her husband Malcolm X.)

Beyond the grinding daily pressure of class expectations and confinement to the role of wife and mother, Coretta was married to a man who essentially knew from age 26 his pursuit of justice would lead to a violent death. Any doubts about that possibility were erased during the Montgomery Bus Boycott when their home was bombed. There were other burdens too.

It was Coretta whom J. Edgar Hoover's FBI sought to turn into King's Achilles heel. In 1965, the agency sent audiotapes of King's sexual liaisons with other women to Coretta as a means of derailing the leader and thereby the movement. The actual toll of this is unknown and perhaps unknowable, though years later Coretta wrote that such matters in a union between soul mates are ultimately inconsequential -- a profound statement of commitment and love one suspects was written by official Coretta.

Coretta Scott King was frequently compared to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and on the surface the comparison was apt. Both women were thrust into history by the assassination of a husband whom history has regarded as a great idealist. Both endured unimaginable travail with vast reserves of grace -- a feat anyone who has ever lost a love one, understands as heroic. And the images of Coretta Scott King and Jacqueline Kennedy at their respective husbands' funerals have been burned into our collective memory. But that is where it ends. While Bouvier Kennedy had the weight of the presidential seal to ensure that her husband would remain a cherished icon of his native land, Coretta Scott King was left with only the sad history and official amnesia that has greeted black martyrs since that first African decided not to board a slave ship. Jacqueline Kennedy was free to become Jacqueline Onasis without fear that her husband would be forgotten. Coretta had no such assurances. Ask yourselves how many of us recall and honor Harry T. and Harriet Moore, the NAACP officials who were killed by a firebomb in 1950. Even by 1968, their noble work was remembered as a distant echo. It is possible, in the most ideal of scenarios, that the world had actually been changed by Martin’s work and his vision. But such vague hopes are cold comfort to a grieving wife and wounded extended community.

It was Coretta's will that ensured we carried Martin with us, that his vision continues to be spoken of in the present tense. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change was literally created in the family basement. It was Coretta's undaunted efforts to have Martin's birthday made into a national holiday that solidified her status as a hero in her own right. A student of American history would have no reason to suspect that the nation would honor a slain black man with a national holiday. Coretta believed.

With time, she came to use her status in overtly political ways -- endorsing Walter Mondale over Jesse Jackson in 1984 and publicly challenging the black community to combat homophobia and address the issue of HIV-AIDS. Last month, Coretta made a surprise appearance at a dinner banquet. The audience was shocked that she had mustered the strength to appear in public after suffering a major stroke. But to those of us familiar with her story, there was no reason for surprise. This is the sort of thing that heroes do.


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