I don’t go to the gravesite very much,” says Coretta King. “I have never felt that Martin was there. What he stood for could never be contained in a grave. Daddy King used to go all the time and feel so depressed. I asked him, ‘Dad, why do you keep going? Martin’s not there.’ ”
Coretta Scott King is not a woman to look back. Ten years have passed since an assassin’s bullet ended the extraordinary career of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In that time Mrs. King has become far more than a keeper of the flame. She is dedicated not just to preserving the dreams of the slain civil rights champion, but to making them reality with the force of her own powerful personality.
She has easy access to America’s power centers. She lends her name to causes ranging from women’s rights to full employment. Her pleas for economic sanctions against South Africa or for passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins bill are eagerly quoted in the press. When she asks for money, contributions are generous. “I’m amazed at the way people respond to her just because of who she is,” says Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Coretta’s friend and confidante.
Her consistent success in building support for her projects is not universally appreciated by other black leaders. One of them is Hosea Williams, a Georgia state representative and onetime lieutenant to Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He has complained that her fund raising might better be devoted to the poor rather than to her monument to her husband, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta. (Her friends reply that the money Coretta attracts would not be donated to other causes anyway.)
Ironically, even this week’s NBC-TV miniseries, King, ruffled feelings. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s successor as head of SCLC, denounced the series as an unrealistic account of King’s life and struggle. Coretta, while conceding imperfections, defended the programs as “a powerful statement overall.” It is not the first time she and Abernathy have disagreed on her husband’s legacy and her role in promoting it. Somewhat to her surprise, Coretta King finds herself a controversial figure—and more.
“I’ve become almost like an institution,” she admits. But her public image of unfailing composure and somber dignity shrouds a lively woman of 50. In private, she laughs heartily at the least pretext and frets that her hectic schedule leaves her too little time with her four children. Even less understood is that Coretta King is motivated not only by a sense of duty long shared with her husband but by personal convictions independently reached.
“I was always an activist,” she insists, “more of an activist than Martin when we met. Later on I saw it was destiny that we were meant to come together. I didn’t learn commitment from Martin. But he gave me an opportunity to strengthen it.” An admiring group of foreign journalists recently crowded into her home just off Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and she told them, proudly, almost imperiously, “In 1956, when our house was bombed, my husband was the target, but I was also the target. After his death I became more of a target. The threats continue. When you devote your life to a cause, you must be willing to pay whatever price is necessary. I am not frightened.”
Coretta Scott grew up unafraid. She recalls that in Marion, Ala., where she was born, “Black people owned their own land. My grandfather had 350 acres. Our houses were unpainted, but we owned them and that made a big difference. We had dignity and independence.”
Her father did not want to farm. Instead, he bought a truck—the only black man in the area to own one—and made a living hauling lumber, logs and scrap iron. “He suffered greatly during the Depression because he was in competition with whites,” she says. “He was threatened.” In time he owned a fleet of three trucks and then a sawmill. “He ran the sawmill for two weeks and it burned down. It didn’t scare him. He went back to work the next day.” (Both parents are still living; her father is now 78, her mother 73.)
The middle child of three (older sister, younger brother), Coretta has early memories of church and music. “I’ve sung all my life; it was natural for me.” Deciding to pursue her music studies away from home (“At the time, the South was a terrible, oppressive place for blacks”), she followed her sister Edythe to Antioch College in Ohio. After graduation Coretta enrolled in Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where a fellowship paid for her tuition and part-time cleaning and clerking jobs provided a minimal lifestyle, including a diet based largely on graham crackers.
The second semester, she met King, then a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Boston University. “I thought Martin was unusual,” she says. “He was short, only 5’7″, but he was strong and masculine and he had a strong social conscience and a determination to fight against injustice. I wondered if he was real, if he meant what he said.” There was no mistaking what young Martin thought of Coretta. “He started to talk about marriage the first day we met,” she recalls—and on every date after that.
“I was not ready to get married and definitely not to a minister,” Coretta says. “All my life I had wanted to study music, and here was the opportunity. I felt I was where God wanted me to be.” Besides, she learned that Martin’s father had an Atlanta girl picked as a prospective daughter-in-law. But after the senior King could not interest his son in the hometown candidate, he visited Boston and resignedly told Coretta and Martin: “Y’all are courtin’ too hard. I’m afraid you’re going to mess up, so I think you better decide when you’re going to get married.”
She was a Methodist, he a Baptist, and they solved the which-church question by holding their wedding ceremony on the lawn of the Scott family home. In 1954 young Rev. King accepted the pastorship of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Before long he attracted national attention as leader of a successful—and nonviolent—bus boycott by Montgomery’s blacks. A new era in the Southern civil rights struggle began.
“We never really talked about the dangers and the sacrifices,” says Mrs. King. “We just didn’t have normal fear. Martin always knew he was going to jail, and it was part of his preparation in each campaign.” Except for his arrest in DeKalb County, Georgia, where he was sentenced to six months in the state penitentiary and she wept in the courtroom, Coretta King bore it all with outward stoicism. “God gave me the gift of being able to remain calm in a crisis. There was never a point where I thought we weren’t going forward, that it was hopeless.”
In 1960 the Kings moved to Atlanta, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Child by child, their family was growing, and Coretta found it difficult to keep up her singing career. “Martin would encourage me to do things and then he’d say I had to stay home with the kids more,” she recalls. “As he felt the pressure on his schedule, he took it out on me. I was the one who had to accommodate to being both wife and co-worker, but I never thought, ‘Oh, I have to do this and my children are being deprived and I’m alone a lot of the time.’ I’m blessed with tremendous energy. I just don’t get tired.”
There were trips abroad—to Africa, to Geneva, to Oslo in 1964 to stand proudly with Dr. King as he received the Nobel Peace Prize. But there were unpleasant surprises too. One was the bitter resistance their cause met as it turned northward. “Martin said he had never experienced as much hatred as in Cicero and Chicago,” Mrs. King recalls.
Worse yet in her view was the vendetta of the late J. Edgar Hoover. “The FBI tried everything, and Martin and I talked about it. Very early he said, ‘Most people are vulnerable when it comes to money and sex. Those are the two things they try to get you on.’ When it came to money, Martin was very careful about the accounting and how he used funds. People told him if they couldn’t find anything they would try to frame him.”
She says she once received an unmarked tape purporting to be of Dr. King in a compromising situation. “Well, I couldn’t make much out of it, it was just a lot of mumbo jumbo.” Laughing, Coretta says, “If that was all Hoover had, he didn’t have anything.”
Yet what Coretta King insists was a campaign to discredit and even vilify her husband has left deep scars. She firmly believes her husband’s murder in 1968 was part of a conspiracy. “I can’t prove who did it,” she admits, “but I know it didn’t happen from just one man. With all that’s come out about the FBI, it’s just so clear.”
Finally, Mrs. King is disappointed in President Carter, whom she has known since his days as Georgia governor. She agrees with his campaign for human rights, but accuses the Administration of “doing nothing to deal with the needs of black and poor people.”
Coretta King’s life focuses these days on her family and the still-expanding King Center for Social Change. Adjacent to his restored birthplace, it is a block-long structure of meeting halls, gym, library and archives, a child-development center—and the crypt.
With her children she is a strong matriarchal figure, though she seems close to them. Yolanda Denise (“Yoki”), 22, graduated from Smith and is studying acting at New York University’s School of the Arts. Martin Luther King III (“Marty”), 20, is a junior and political science major at Morehouse College, where both his father and grandfather went. Dexter Scott, 17, is a senior at Frederick Douglass High, where he played football, while Bernice Albertine (“Bunny”), 14, is a freshman honor student at the same school. “I think about how Martin would have loved to see them grow up,” his widow laments, “how proud he would be of them. But I don’t think about it for long. I guess I feel like he knows.”
Royalties from Dr. King’s books and her own writing are her main source of income (“Not one penny comes to me” from the King Center). “I don’t know how much longer I can make it,” she says, “but I’m not concerned about having a whole lot, about living well.”
She is a handsome woman, and the subject of remarriage comes up from time to time. “I don’t have a lot of proposals hanging around,” Coretta laughs. “There aren’t that many good men out there. I move so fast they can’t get to me, I guess. I think there are men attracted to me who admire what I’m doing, but I may be too involved in causes. They are possibly intimidated.
“I was lucky that I had in Martin a very strong man,” she continues. “I needed a man I could look to for support. Yet he appreciated that I had a mind of my own. He sought my opinion and respected me.”
For Coretta King, her martyred husband remains “the greatest friend the country had in the time in which he lived. He brought it together and saved it, but such a price he had to pay. The only consolation I have is that I know it was necessary.”