Coretta Scott King died this week, and I guess I feel the need to say a few words over the body. To pay my respects, as it were. To nod in the direction of a fallen warrior. To pour a libation on the ground of a country soaked in her husband's blood.
Articles have sprouted up like mushrooms after a heavy rain, but they mostly talk about how she rose stalwart from the blow of 'his' death and how she carried on 'his' work. Little about how a pretty young Alabama native got talked into marriage by a glib-tongued young minister that she saw as too young and too short at their first meeting in Boston when they were both students in 1952. Two years younger than she was, he was only 5' 6-1/2", after all, but she was (pretty or not) already twenty-five years old, and having picked cotton and worked as a waitress before, Coretta Scott wasn't looking to die an old maid. Nor to live on peanut butter and crackers the way she had during her first year at Boston Conservatory of Music after she earned her B.A. at Antioch, following her sister, the first African-American full-time student at that institution.
Besides, once he had made his decision, he must have been something, making his case. He was a helluva case-maker, as we all came to know eventually. She was the one, he told her. And she listened.
I doubt that, at that point, he was thinking about being a hero. Or going to India. Or leading a movement. Or being shot to death at 39 and winding up with his own holiday and his face on a stamp. I doubt that at that point either one of them could imagine the struggles they would face--both political and personal. Though, if every man in the U.S. who ever cheated on his wife--or for that matter, if every minister who cheated on his wife, was investigated by the F.B.I. and the results published in the national news, there wouldn't be enough newsprint in the country to hold it all. And then, of course, there was the matter of how 'he' incorporated others' writing into his work, being so much more widely read than the average person that, sometimes, he may not even have remembered he was doing it. 'He' didn't have to deal with that, but she did.
And she did. Carrying herself with resolution and great dignity to play a historical role she could not possibly have wanted, but having it thrust upon her, simply rising to the challenge and accepting it. Like she had accepted the sack to hold the cotton. Like she had accepted having to student teach on the Antioch campus because the parents at the local schools didn't want a Black woman in contact with their children. Like she had accepted having her first real home bombed when she was only 29 with a year-old baby. Like she had accepted the request to lead a crowd of 50,000 people through the streets of Memphis four days after her husband--and the father of her four children--had been shot in the head.
'He'--Martin Luther King, Jr.--was, for all his human frailty, one of a handful of leaders who have walked to their death to illumine the path to freedom. But 'she'--Coretta Scott King--was the one who, like women in history have often been left to do, fulfilled her work quietly, bravely, and even doggedly at times, but with the finesse that only the great--and the pure at heart--are able to exhibit.