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Q&A With The Late Coretta Scott King

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The family of Martin Luther King has survived a great deal since the following 2004 interview took place in Atlanta. Coretta King had moved from her longtime Atlanta home (where she and Dr. King raised their children) and in August 2005 suffered a heart attack and stroke; she died in January 2006, on her son Dexter's birthday. Yolanda, the Kings' oldest child, died of a sudden heart attack at age 51 in 2007 in southern California.

It's just further evidence of what the King family endures in the process of realizing Dr. King's amazing Beloved Community.

One of the last print interviews Mrs. King gave, the following conversation - originally printed in AARP's May/June 2004 issue - took place in the boardroom of the The King Center, just two doors away from Ebenezer Baptist Church where King co-pastored. Dr. King's birth house is also on this same street in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn District, as is his tomb, situated alongside a reflecting pool outside the boardroom's window.

It was clear when I met this Alabama daughter that humility and forthrightness -- traits she shared with her late spouse -- were her strong suits. Elegant, warm and funny, she laughed often. For a woman who stood at the center of much 20th century history, the only name she ever dropped was her husband's.

The following excerpt is in remembrance of the 40th anniversary of Dr.King's assassination 40 years ago today, on April 4, 1968 in Memphis.

Q: How relevant is Dr. King's message of nonviolence in today's world?

A: Nonviolence is the only credible response to the violence we're seeing around the world. The nonviolent philosophy and methods Martin taught and lived are the most effective means we have for resolving conflicts peacefully. With more worldwide weapons and violence, there's an urgent need to globally promote his teachings. Indeed, the iron curtain's collapse owes much to Kingian nonviolence and its methods. Revenge and retaliation always perpetuate the cycle of anger, fear and violence.

Q: How do you think Martin Luther King would respond to the 9/11 terrorist act and world terrorism threat?

A: Of course, it's impossible to answer that in any definitive sense, but my husband once said, "Violence is the language of the unheard." He urged his followers to consider and address honestly their adversaries' legitimate grievances. Some terrorists do have some legitimate grievances - chief is U.S. sponsorship of repressive dictatorships that deny their people human rights and economic opportunity - though (the terrorist's) methods must not be tolerated. We can prevent many people from becoming terrorists by truly listening to people who feel they've been treated unjustly and responding to their concerns with a sense of justice and compassion.

Q: What's the one moment of the Civil Rights era that remains as large for you today as when it happened?

A: The first campaign at Montgomery was the most meaningful.... The experience was revelatory for me. After the house was bombed and for a month or so after, I did a lot of soul searching. Because I was very serious when I was proposed to as to whether I should marry a minister, it was, 'Why, why?' Now (after Montgomery), I knew why...

I met Martin, and then coming back to Montgomery and now we're caught up in this movement we'd never dreamed of. We were getting (death) threats, and my daddy got (death) threats when I was a little girl. I said, 'My goodness, I'm reliving what I lived in my childhood.' It was hard, but it was exciting. You felt your life had purpose and meaning. ... Here we are in the forefront of a movement for liberation that's impacting the whole world.

Q: You're currently writing your memoirs. Has this been a difficult process?

A: Yes, because for one thing, at my age there's so much of my life - and how to be selective? There are many things that ought to be told which have never been told before. When I did my first book (My Life with Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Holt & Company, 1969), I told the truth, but I just didn't tell all the whole truth about some things because certain people were still living. It's a different kind of truth, you know? (Laughter.) It's also the last opportunity I'll have for the sake of history to set the record straight.

I keep seeing these books that come out, and there are so many inaccuracies, and I say, 'It didn't happen that way.' There's a lot I have to get straightened out. There have been so many misstatements about me and even in Martin and my relationship. It's just stuff that people make up. I don't know where they get it. And that becomes history if you don't correct it.

Q: You still live in the same house you shared with Dr. King?

A: You know, Martin had reservations about owning property, especially after we went to India in 1959 to study Gandhi's life. He tried to talk me out of owning a home. I said to him, 'Every woman wants a home.' And he didn't do anything for five years. Finally he said, 'I'm going to get a house for you and the kids. I don't need it, but I'm going to get it for you and the children.'"

So we found a house, and Martin said make it very simple. We don't need any fancy furniture. We moved in right after Selma, and when he saw the house he didn't say anything. I was disappointed because I'd worked very hard. Two weeks later he came in and said, 'I knew this house was too nice.' I said, 'This house it not too nice, it's a very modest house, very modest.' He didn't believe it until a couple of friends of his told him out of New York it was modest, and then he relaxed.

Q: You've been outspoken in your support of gay rights and you get criticism for that. Why is it important to you to speak on that issue? Would it have been important to Dr. King?

A: I don't see how you can separate human rights and the rights of all people, no matter what their sexual orientation is. They have the same rights as I, and those of us who are privileged need to support (them) because it elevates everybody.

I think about what my husband often said when they criticized him about the Vietnam War and they said, 'You need to stick to Civil Rights.' He always felt that peace and justice are indivisible. He said, 'I've struggled too long against segregated public accommodations to now end up segregating my moral concerns.' You can't say you support the rights of all people, then just choose the ones that you don't support. That's the way I feel: We're all God's children.

Q: In your opinion, is there someone today who is a moral leader, who could step forward and take the role your husband took?

A: I don't think it's that simple. I don't think it's ever been that simple, but people are going to believe it. Somehow there's this mistaken notion that an individual has so much power. There's collective power, and I don't believe people really understand how important it is for them as individuals to use the power of the ballot.

But people have decided that somebody's going to come along and deliver us. I don't believe that. And I think my husband would be very disappointed if he thought people were waiting for another hero, another Moses, so to speak, to deliver us.

Q: Your husband's 1964 dream for America is iconic. What is your dream for America today?

A: I don't know how it's going to happen, but I believe the nonviolent philosophy as lived out by MLK Jr. can become a reality because at this point with the spiral of violence I just don't see any other way out.

We didn't know how it was going to happen in the world at large. I can point to South Africa, where we really had no idea. They thought it was going to be a bloodbath. And there was one Nelson Mandela languishing in a South African prison for 27 years while the transformation was taking place. At the same time, we were concerned about the Soviet Union, and before our eyes it was dismantled. There are many other instances. There's the Berlin Wall. We were concerned about Marcos in the Philippines, and they disposed him without firing a shot.

I don't know what God's plan is, but I have to believe there's a plan, and we have to allow ourselves to be used as part of God's will and purpose, whatever and whoever is willing to do that. Maybe I'll live to see it, maybe I won't. But those of us who believe have to keep on believing and working.

Janet Kinosian is a veteran journalist who has written for The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Reader's Digest among many. Her interview with Coretta Scott King was one of the last sit-down interviews King gave. She provides Media Consulting at www.janetkinosian.com. Sign up for her quarterly newsletter: janet@janetkinosian.com

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