February 3, 2006

Coretta Was More Than Just King’s Wife

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

“I certainly appreciate your concern, and I would appreciate anything that you can do to help.” That was the dignified but worried request for help in 1959 that Coretta Scott King made in a phone conversation with then Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been sentenced to four months of hard labor at Georgia’s notorious Reidsville State Prison after being arrested on a trumped up traffic warrant and for violating probation. The second charge stemmed from King’s earlier arrest at a sit-in demonstration.

Coretta was deeply pained that King might not make it out of Reidsville alive. There had been rumors of foul play planned against him. During the tense days of King’s imprisonment, Coretta frantically worked the phones trying to get any help she could for King’s release. At the time, Kennedy was locked in a tight White House race with Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy made the call partly out of sincere concern for King and partly with an eye on the black vote.

Coretta’s efforts paid off for King, and Kennedy, and sunk Nixon. The Democrats turned the call into a public relations coup. Kennedy’s action was credited with tipping large numbers of blacks toward the Democrats, and Nixon, the early odds-on favorite to win the presidency, lost by a narrow margin. King was soon released unharmed and the civil rights movement gained greater steam and vigor in the next couple of years. Coretta’s dogged determination to save her husband energized the civil rights fight and changed the course of a presidential election and race relations in America.

It was fitting that Kennedy’s life-affirming and politically profound phone call was made to Coretta. In December 1955, she and King anxiously kept watch at the front window of their home in Montgomery, Ala., to make sure that there were no black riders on the buses. She stood, walked and cheered arm in arm with him at countless civil rights marches, demonstrations and rallies. She endured King’s long absences and the gossipy rumors of his infidelities, and kept the family and the marriage together.

That meant great personal sacrifice. For years, the King family lived in what charitably could be described as a ramshackle house. As his family grew in size, friends and family members begged him to move to a larger house. King resisted.

An exasperated Coretta fired back at the King critics that he “felt that it was inconsistent with his philosophy” to own property. Eventually, King gave in and paid the grand sum of $10,000 for a bigger home. But he continued to complain that the house was “too big” and “elegant.” King critics delighted in taking pot shots at him for his shun of personal wealth, but Coretta’s greatest concern remained in fulfilling King’s dream, and that did not include fattening their bank account.

In the decade after King’s murder, Coretta did not fade from the scene. She continued to storm the barricades against racial injustice, economic inequality, military adventurism and against hate crimes and violence. She wrote countless letters, gave speeches and participated in direct action campaigns. She continued to fiercely protect King’s legacy from the opportunists that twisted and sullied his words and name.

In 1996, a group of black ministers in Miami circulated a flier with the picture of King to hundreds of black churches in Miami-Dade County. The fliers denounced gay rights. The group claimed that gays were expropriating the civil rights cause to push their agenda. In a public statement, Coretta denounced the ministers and noted that King would be a champion of gay rights if he were alive.

A month before Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed the King holiday bill in November 1983, he made a public crack about King being a possible Communist sympathizer. Coretta made it clear she was hurt and stung by his insensitive slander. A chagrined Reagan quietly called her and apologized.

Coretta never bought the official line that King was gunned down by lone assassin James Earl Ray. When Ray demanded a new trial, Coretta went to bat for him and testified in court that Ray should get another trial. Her concern was not with Ray but, as she put it, “to determine the truth” about King’s assassination. Though there is no evidence of a government plot to kill King, Coretta still wanted to put the FBI and the government on trial for its decades-long illegal stealth-war of harassment, surveillance, intimidation and poison pen letters against King and other civil rights leaders.

The friction over the affairs of the King Center that cropped up in recent days will not alter the judgment of history about Coretta. She and King shared the same relentless passion and vision that helped permanently transform American society and enrich the lives of millions of Americans of all races. She was more than just King’s wife.

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