Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Coretta Scott King, National Widow by Gerald Early

The death of Coretta Scott King brings a certain aspect of the 1960’s to near-closure. There were four widows of assassinated public figures of major renown at that time: Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John Kennedy; Betty Shabazz, wife of Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X; Ethel Kennedy, wife of slain senator Robert Kennedy; and of course Mrs. King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. Only Ethel Kennedy is still alive, and she is not a significant public presence. Of all these women, only Mrs. King worked tirelessly to advance her husband’s name and his cause. Indeed, of all of them, Mrs. King became the national widow, a woman who could not have remarried if she wanted the public standing to do what she proceeded to do.

Coretta Scott King made being the widow of Dr. King a political and cultural position. She used her famous husband, as certain driven women have done before her, to empower herself and, ironically, achieve her identity through the maintenance and propagation of his myth. That she as a black woman was able to build a national shrine for a black man – one whom many believed was a communist and fewer truly esteem than their public pronouncements might suggest – is a considerable feat of energetic single-mindedness, worthy of admiration.

Skeptics might think it was all a form of marital neurosis: a score-settling obsession with the only thing you’ve got. That is, Mrs. King’s pursuit was, in part, settling scores with Dr. King himself (his womanizing had to be painful and humiliating for any wife, no matter how liberal or forward-thinking she saw herself or how grand the cause of civil rights) and settling scores with his critics. And it should be remembered that at the time of his death, Dr. King had critics by the bunch.

It must have been difficult to be married to Martin Luther King. He was never home. Mrs. King had to bear the burden of rearing their four children virtually alone. She also had to bear the burden of being a model wife to a man struggling to maintain a triple identity. He was a preacher (being a preacher’s wife by itself is enough to make many women seek psychiatric help, so demanding is the job); he was an international public figure, and he was a constrained black man whose bourgeois morality was crucial to his legitimacy and authority. Dr. King also had to be a model of humility and selflessness in a way few race leaders have been required to be: he could not in any way seem to profit from his fame and position. Any move of that sort, given the intense F.B.I. scrutiny he was under, would have resulted in his complete downfall and the destruction of the civil rights movement. So, for instance, he had to give away his Nobel Peace Prize money. He left his family very little money when he died. In “At Canaan’s Edge,” the final volume of his study of the King years, Taylor Branch writes:

Settlement was imminent in April [1965] on Coretta’s quest for them to buy a first home in Atlanta after five years as renters, but King still resisted. To him, even a modest house of $10,000 was a haunting luxury, unbecoming his commitment to the poor. His renunciations of material comfort and bourgeois ambition vexed Coretta, especially since his constant journeys most often left her behind with four children in a cramped space. She accommodated what she called the “guilt-ridden” barbs of a man whose “conscience fairly devoured him.”

Dr. King’s guilt was intensified by his philandering. He had many women on the road, the privilege of a male celebrity who needs lots of sex to boost his ego and calm his nerves. (It was a standard perk for big-time black preachers, in any case.) Indeed, according to his biographers, he was about to tell Mrs. King before he died that one mistress had become a favorite and that they ought to divorce. (If the biographies are accurate, it seems unlikely their marriage would have survived into the 1970’s, had Dr. King not been assassinated.)

Dr. King was also under enormous pressure, as Mrs. King acknowledges from the outset in her book, “My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.” He was the head of a mass movement that he had virtually come to symbolize and without him could hardly exist as something coherent. He also felt pressure because he was a man trying to create a political center and keep himself there, neither too far left nor too conservative. He tried to combine the political tactics of the union organizer with the drama and aura of Billy Graham-style religious campaigns, an enormous strategic and ideological strain. He was also under the constant threat of death, as were members of his family. Dr. King suffered “breakdowns,” bouts of exhaustion, as they were called; but Mrs. King must have suffered similarly.

Dr. King was surely driven by guilt, as a good many social crusaders are, at least religious ones: guilt that motivates them to change society, guilt about why they are driven to do this at some cost to their personal lives, and guilt that arises from how they are supposed to exploit whatever success they achieve. All of this adds up to 15 years of a difficult and complex marriage between two ambitious people who were first generation members of the post-World War II black educated elite.

Therein lies an interesting story of how these ambitions complemented, and how they may have thwarted, particular desires. The fathers of Mrs. and Dr. King came from large families, but both Coretta and Martin were born and reared in small southern families, a sign of upward expectations on the part of their parents. Only people reared in a certain way, with certain important aspirations, would wind up with the idea that they could change the country and that they ought to. Mrs. King graduated from Antioch College and the New England Conservatory; Dr. King from Morehouse, Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. It is little wonder they became the leading couple of civil rights movement. In them and through them, the torch of black national leadership was literally passed to a new generation.

Mrs. King achieved three institutional changes during her life after her husband’s death: the establishment of the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta; the establishment of the national King holiday, signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan, a conservative who suspected King was a communist; and the establishment of the Coretta Scott King Award for children’s books.

For these successes she deserves considerable acclaim in her own right as one of the remarkable women of her time. She became Dr. King’s Paul, in effect. She not only institutionalized his beliefs and ideas, spread his influence directly and indirectly in a number of spheres, particularly among young people — she also firmly established both his myth and the inviolability of it. And she slew his enemies as well, for his canonization, through his holiday, has so elevated him that he transcends criticism. Even conservatives dare not speak against him, and most have come to accept him as a civic hero, a genuine American Founding Father, the man who had race relations sorted out the right way before Black Power, government spending, affirmative action and irresponsible race hustlers came along to wreck the Dream, that beautiful articulation of a color-blind America.

Such elevation had not happened for any black leader before Dr. King — not W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lester Granger, Charles S. Johnson or anyone else. Some of these leaders may have left some kind of an institutional presence behind, but none has had Dr. King’s reach, prestige or power. Of course, Dr. King was probably the most famous and important leader black America ever produced, but what has happened subsequent to his death was not inevitable or a natural result of his life and accomplishments.

What distinguished Dr. King from the others, in great measure, was that he was married to someone like Mrs. King, who wanted for him, in the end, what he could not have wanted for himself. Sometimes a marriage can work that way, as Mrs. King clearly proved. Sometimes a marriage can last well beyond the death of a spouse.

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