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Coretta Scott King: Beside, Not Behind, the Great Man

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Dr. King had a dream. Four decades past his soaring, sweeping sermon in the shadows and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his dream remains, in many ways, unrealized. Poverty, incarceration, generational stasis and diminished opportunities still run roughshod over minority dreams; the completely colorblind society he ideated might be within eyesight, but it's still a distant destination. If more than a little of Dr. King's dream lingers, all these years later, within the shadows and on the steps of Lincoln's memorial and ideal -- several rungs beneath complete equality with several steps left to climb -- President Barack Obama's successive electoral triumphs suggest the dream is within reach. His example serves as an incarnation of Dr. King's aspiration to ascend to the highest ideals, possibilities and positions of American society.

The gospel energy and emotion that rocketed Dr. King's words into the stratosphere with comparable force of another sixties historical happening, Apollo 11, found an audience among Millennials during the 2004 Democratic National Convention and the 2008 presidential campaign. At his oratorical best, President Obama recalls the dramatic cadences of the black church that sustained and motivated countless generations through the hardships and challenges of slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Today, that emotional energy reassures and propels the president's supporters across demographic divides and categories, each with different and diverse challenges and aspirations.

A notable absentee from President Obama's two inaugurations makes both his accomplishment and her absence more poignant. Televised images of presidents showing reverence and respect to the matriarch of Dr. King's legacy became standard in the years following his death. In 2009, Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte bridged the past into the present, lending their historical gravitas to inaugural events. However, even they couldn't bring the symbolic, intellectual or visceral force that Coretta Scott King's presence would have conferred.

It's nearly six years since Mrs. King's passing. With the national -- and global -- observance of her husband's birthday and holiday, along with perhaps even greater worldwide attention on President Obama's successive inauguration festivities, it's proper to recall and salute another iconic warrior who helped make today a celebratory milestone. I wrote the following salute to Mrs. King 14 years ago. I saw her speak again afterward -- barely a year before her death. However, the words and recollections of the now-dated but still-resonant tribute carries the same emotional cachet that they did in the last century when I first relayed them.

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Photo by the author (Wayne Trujillo)

"There was time when they used to say that behind every great man there had to be a great woman," Annie Lennox lashed out.

"But in this time of change it's not longer true," Aretha whipped back, upstaging the young upstart from Britain who had arrived on these shores with a slew of other English tykes in the early eighties, Reaganomics-era descendants of the Age of Aquarian Righteous Brothers; threatening a revival of gritty and greasy sixties soul cooked up as an imported concoction. Call it a "blue-eyed special" rather than those blue plate specials of soul, sweat, grease and grits traditionally served up in a thousand rural greasy spoons.

It was the spring of '85 and the sixties were so hot they were downright cool. Nostalgia was a drug college kids in Boulder could get high on -- legally. The Stones, The Beatles and The Doors competed with Ralphie, the university's mascot, for many students' attention and affection. The announcement that Coretta Scott King was to speak on campus spurred a rash of conversation. I took the adage emblazed across our campus book repository to heart -- "He Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always A Child." History has always occupied a special place in my heart. However, more than history seized my attention.

I had viewed my ethnically-mixed heritage as dysfunctional, always grasping at an amorphous identity. The recordings of Dr. King's fierce orations resonated with a passion I'd never heard before. The churchy intonations that had impassioned believers from the pews into the streets still had the power to rocket my emotions into orbit. His widow on campus was the nearest I could get to his memory. A conflation of history and emotions ensured I would be present.

Others had been enticed by glimpsing the living legend. What a shock to find out we would be more enthralled by the living message. Mrs. King wasn't capitalizing on the surge of nostalgia; nor was she embarking on a tour of the oldies' circuit. The audience was soon to discover she wasn't just a surviving appendage of the late leader, and not the right hand fanning the flames of his memory to illuminate herself in the afterglow.

Most people had viewed the countless documentaries of the stoic Widow King facing her husband's casket, and the future, with her small children clinging to her side. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the young widow in mourning black, peering out from behind a filmy veil that couldn't quite hide the eyes, had been paraded through a succession of magazines and books. One supposed her bones steel rather than marrow padded her bones. Her posture and countenance imparted an impression of strength and dignity that survive to this day. The only turmoil evident was in those shrouded eyes. Behind the veil, they were a battleground that had seen one too many casualties.

Twenty years later, Mrs. King came to Boulder. And her audience came with expectations firmly in tow. The finely chiseled face supported by the dignified posture leapt out of the history books and up to the podium bearing the symbol of the university. We believed the symbol stood for sophistication, class and enlightenment. When Mrs. King addressed the crowd, she brought the ideal to life.

Her theme was equality and the struggle to grasp it.

Her goal wasn't so much to enshrine a man - but rather a dream - with a national holiday. I can't repeat her words verbatim, but I do remember she delivered them in a steady, measured stream. Mrs. King has never been prone to histrionics or theatrics. Her power resided in the conviction of her words. The eyes were still the purveyor of her emotions, stamping an exclamation mark on one statement; drawing a question mark on another.

The dream of non-violent social change was alive. Dr. King's passionate sermons blasted the wall of prejudice more effectively than an arsenal of nuclear weaponry. The riot fires suffocated; the lacerations gouging a wounded American landscape sprouted a tenuous scar tissue. I didn't think of it as scar tissue, but rather as topsoil. I had an image of Mrs. King holding up a handful of that topsoil and challenging us to plant and nurture a dream.

Images are broadcast across the screen of my mind when I press the replay button from that evening. The footage is somewhat grainy; the editing a tad sloppy. Too bad, my memory is live, but it isn't Memorex. The message, the tone, the spirit of that evening is imprinted on DAT -- strictly state of the art, however. The Kings' was still raging long after time and change reduced the burning crosses and riot infernos to ashes, swept away on the wind of decades past.

Mrs. King finished her speech. We were impressed. She was clearly exhausted, but banished her fatigue from the room. She had a job and a message. She did it with resolve. We got the message and went home. That's the succinct version. But emotions, memories and history are never succinct.

Like Aretha, everything about Dr. and Mrs. King is steeped in soul. Gutbucket soul. Raw but real. The kind that endures. And, yes, Aretha was right. "In this day of change, it's no longer true." Coretta Scott King was not behind the great man, but firmly beside him.

Parts of this blog post appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 1999 issue of the Urban Spectrum.