Like many white folk who studied the Civil Rights Movement on a surface level, I always assumed Coretta Scott King fully played the Dutiful Wife. She tended to the children, kept the house, lifted the spirits of her famous husband, mourned with dignity and carried on his legacy as she got older.
Well, she did do those things. But she did so much more and she deserves to be remembered as more than The Wife.
I’ve always had a curiosity about Coretta Scott King ever since I heard that she was pro-LGBTQIA+ and fought for those with HIV and AIDS. Nowadays, these are celebrated causes but they weren’t in the 1980s. Her work put her at odds with her husband’s former cohorts and I found a real bravery in it, a depth. I remember fondly the era before the 2010s when even then, human sexuality was a taboo and tawdry topic. I assumed it took incredible bravery.
Coretta Scott King was brave but it was more than that. She was called. She felt at an early age that she had a call from God to serve her neighbor. As she recounted her secular and theological educations, I heard a story I’ve heard in so many of my female colleagues: following their calls despite sexism, figuring out what God wants for them in the world. It was quite a thing to learn about Coretta Scott King, the person, especially to see her grow. Even though I knew how the story ended, more or less, I found myself rooting for her the whole time.
Yes, she did do the things I suppose a Civil Rights Activist’s Wife was expected. But she also marched. She also spoke out. She also grew as a person, learned lessons, was challenged.
And she had a life. Something I’ve tried to focus on these last few years of Civil Rights study, without invading the privacy of another, is to learn about their lives beyond their work. What did they do for fun? What were their dreams beyond fighting for their humanity?
When you learn things like how Martin Luther King, Jr. loved to dance, or how Fred Hampton wanted to play center field for the Yankees, or how Coretta Scott King wanted to sing at concerts, it adds another layer. Because you remember that these are people. People like us with real hopes, dreams, and ambitions. People who cannot pursue their goals because of prejudice. Coretta Scott King is certainly proud of her work, and she should be, but no child grows up dreaming of combating such a legacy of evil hurled against them. It makes the story more painful and I think we who don’t have to deal with anti-Blackness need to sit with that more rather than constantly seeking out workshops and anti-racist self-help books.
At any rate, I had to dock this a star because, while it was fascinating to read about her political machinations to get the King Center built and to be involved in politics, I wish the book was longer and covered more ground on her family. Again, if it’s not the story she wanted to tell, that’s fine, but after the chapter on building the King Center (the best chapter in the book for my money), it’s a litany of recounting political fights with some words about her kids tacked on at the end. This was published posthumously so it isn’t her fault, per se, but it kept the book from being great.
But it is a good read and I encourage anyone interested to give it a shot. It’s really important to hear Coretta Scott King’s story and to understand why she did what she did.