January 19, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
Coretta Scott King fought for 15 years after her husband’s assassination to get Martin Luther King Day made a federal holiday.
We should remember her as well. Because there are things young women will not learn from a Lifetime Movie like Betty and Coretta or a tribute song by Teena Marie. Here are five that mean something to me.
1. She didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife.
They were introduced by a mutual friend. “I kept hearing about this young man who was so eligible and all that, but she said he’s a preacher, he’s a minister… So I just dismissed it.” Partly, she admits, this was due to a stereotype she had of ignorant, overly pious country preachers. Partly it was what she believed the life of a minister’s family to be like.
I didn’t want to be a minister’s wife and subject my family to living in a parsonage and for my children to be, to become – you know how everybody talks about the pastor’s children and what have you – I just felt that they should not be subjected to that. I just didn’t want that kind of a life.
2. It was not love at first sight.
At least not for Coretta. This man who told her during their first conversation on the phone, before they had even met, that he was Napoleon and she was his Waterloo, turned out to be, like Napoleon, short. He had shaved his mustache “because he was pledging Alpha,” which made him look like a little boy. She was not impressed.
He did turn out to be a good conversationalist. Though she did not appreciate being subjected to a litmus test over lunch.
The conversation had something to do with communism versus capitalism and I made an intelligent comment and he said ‘I see you know something other than music.’ And I thought to myself, of course I do, I’ve been to Antioch College.
On the way back to the conservatory, he told her she had everything he’d ever wanted in a wife. She scoffed at his certainty after just one meeting, with both of them in their first year of their respective schools. But he insisted, “When I finished my two years I’ll pastor a church and I’ll need a wife and I know what I want.”
And her? “I was very clear what I wanted to do in my life and…I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. But this young man was so persistent and so determined.”
3. God speaks in mysterious ways.
Coretta had prayed for guidance, and the answer seemed to come in a dream:
In the dream Daddy King appeared. I had not known Rev. King, Sr. …He was in an open convertible… I was on the sidelines and he was just smiling at me as if he was approving me. And I remember waking up thinking this must be … the sign I was looking for. And I felt a sense of relief, as if some burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
Yet the first time she met Daddy King was not auspicious. He made it clear that her plans of a career in music were not suitable for the wife of a Baptist minister. He wanted to know if she took his son “seriously,” and said that if she didn’t, there were many other women with “a lot to offer” that his son was interested in. I’ve yet to find a source that tells me what his son had to say about that. Coretta responded that she had “a lot to offer” as well.
The couple announced their intention to marry in the Atlanta Daily World on Valentine’s Day, 1953. King, Sr. did finally give his blessing – not without protest – and performed the ceremony, which was held at the Scott home in June. Coretta had the vow to obey removed from the ceremony. For a Baptist wedding in the 1950s, this was very unusual. I’ve yet to find a source that tells me what Daddy King had to say about that.
4. She did not give up music without a fight.
She participated in “freedom concerts,” which consisted of poetry recitation, singing, and lectures demonstrating the history of the civil rights movement. The proceeds from the concerts were donated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
5. Nor did she give up her voice on other matters.
Martin Luther King, Jr. himself limited Coretta’s role in the movement, and expected her to be a housewife and raise their children. But she made speeches, and worked to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. And King was not above letting her “test the waters” before he came out publicly against the Vietnam War.
In 1966 in New Lady magazine she criticized the sexism of the civil rights movement, saying in part, “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” Just months before her husband’s assassination, she participated in a Women’s Strike for Peace at the capital of Washington, D.C. with over five thousand others.
All of this was before she joined the ranks of Myrlie Evers and Betty Shabazz as a “Movement Widow.”
She may well have had a stronger voice as a widow than she could ever have had as a wife, but it was always her voice.
If you’d like to hear more of that voice, the Visionary Leadership Project’s YouTube channel is one of the best places to start.