In January we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and now the country has moved into February -- Black History Month. We'll no doubt hear much more about Dr. King as celebrations and ceremonies unfold around the country. He was without question a great man, and left an enduring mark on our hearts and souls. But he was part of a team, and the other half of that team -- his wife Coretta Scott King -- made her own kind of history, with her husband and without him, both before and after his death.
Coretta Scott King was a peace activist, advocate for children, and champion of the poor long before her marriage, and long after it ended with the tragic assassination of her husband in 1968. But because she was the wife of a great man, her own participation in the American civil rights movement is often minimized.
Before her death in 2006, in preparation for a new biography, Coretta King met many times with Dr. Barbara Reynolds, one of the founding editors of USA Today, and the only woman and only African American on the paper's editorial board. I recently interviewed Dr. Reynolds on her time with Mrs. King for my radio show, Equal Time with Martha Burk. Some highlights:
MB: You started interviewing Mrs. King two years after the assassination. Had you known her before that, and how did you meet her?
BR: I was working at that time for the Chicago Tribune, and they sent me to Atlanta to do a cover story. Most of the male civil rights leaders didn't want to talk to me, because they were afraid I would write something negative [about their desire to usurp King's legacy]. But when I called Mrs. King she said "come on down and write about the work I'm doing at the King Center. Whatever you see, you can write about." She had nothing to hide -- she opened her life to me.
MB: She told you and that in Montgomery, she was tested and found she became stronger in a crisis, and that Martin came to understand he could trust her. What did she mean?
BR: What people don't really know is that Mrs. King was in the line of fire as much as he was. She was the one who answered the phone when racist whites would call and say "I'm going to kill you." She was the one alone with her baby when their house was bombed. This aspect of her life is not part of her profile as a leader -- but she said she told Martin she was tested alone, and could be trusted with trouble.
MB: You write that Coretta King was a full equal, and not merely the "woman behind the man."
BR: She wanted people to know that she was a co-partner in one of the greatest liberation struggles of our age. She wanted people to know that she had visions, she had dreams. She was actually in the movement before she married Martin -- she was a peace activist. That is what led him eventually to come out against the Vietnam war.
MB: Did she feel others treated her as his equal during his lifetime?
BR: You're talking about the 1960s. At that time men in the civil rights movement -- and men everywhere -- had a view that women should be at home. Even at the march on Washington when President Kennedy invited the leaders to the White House, the women were not invited. They were told to go back to their hotels. After the assassination she told me that many of the men told her she should step aside, and let them run things [in building the King Center].
MB: When the MLK memorial was dedicated on the mall in Washington last year, you wrote in the Washington Post that leaving Coretta Scott King completely out was a glaring omission. You said "telling one story without the other creates a flaw and imbalance, a scar on history."
BR: It is astounding that there is no plaque, no quote, no information at all about Coretta. Dr. King often said "If Coretta was not with me, she was only a heartbeat away." But there is still the problem in society of giving women their proper due. It exists, and it exists for her. It's a great memorial -- but I know that without her, it's like an empty space. MLK often wore a wedding ring, and even that is not there. It's this fight through life of being made invisible.
MB: Do you think Coretta Scott King's legacy will grow?
BR: It has to, because of her willingness to transcend racism and to reach out and speak for people for all causes. Her legacy has to go on, because so many people need to know what a true servant is. The threats on her life continued until the time she died. It was not a peaceful life, but it was a brave life.
Listen to the full interview here, including rare audio of Coretta Scott King's speech at the 1996 Atlanta gay rights rally.