Monday, January 19, 2009

The Woman Behind The Man

"ima need coretta scott/if i'm gon be king..."--Fabolous

Today, I'm honoring a beautiful, talented young woman who devoted herself to a life of holding down a young, politically-active minister and helping him become who he is today--the only Black man in American history with his own national holiday. In other words, the only Black man in US history for which banks close. Contrary to popular belief, Coretta Scott King was no wallflower--she had a voice and intended to use it. True, she lived quietly while her husband was alive, staying largely in the background as she grew and cared for their family. But after he was gone, use that voice she did, becoming one of the nation's preeminent human rights' activists of the late 20th century. And yet, there's another side to Coretta Scott King, one that's not of wife, not of mother, not of politician or historical figure, but of partner. Equal. Bonnie to Clyde, Natasha to Boris, Hillary to Bill.

Only Coretta Scott King really knew Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--because as we all know, the person who knows any man best is his woman. Coretta surely revered her husband in some respect; it's evident in the lifetime she spent filling his shoes. But I'll risk sacrilege to state the fact that she also knew him much like Michelle Obama knows her husband: as the negro with morning breath that slept with his mouth hanging wide open and his socks and drawers strewn on the bathroom floor from the night before; the man who wakes up, gets himself ready, kisses you goodbye, and doesn't think twice about the mess and four kids he's left behind for you to take care of--and the fact that, much of the time, he's just like a fifth one.

When she thought of her husband, I'm willing to bet that Coretta Scott King didn't first conjure up images of the "I Have a Dream" Speech or marches in Birmingham. She probably thought more of their pillow talk conversations about her role in the Civil Rights' Movement, times when he told her that she needed to focus on raising their children and not worry about getting her shine on--even though he initially met and came to know her as a high-profile activist college student.

Chances are she didn't think about his nights in jail for civil disobedience or his press conferences. She probably thought about when their first baby was born, or their quiet Sundays at church as a family.

She probably didn't think about how awe-inspiring and monumental it was for a Black man to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. She probably just thought about how wonderful it was that her husband was honored and how it felt to be with him when he found out about his accomplishment.

Her first thoughts likely weren't the throngs of people that showed up to hear him speak wherever he went. She probably just thought about how good it felt to know he belonged to her in the midst of all those people, if even just for a few moments.

Once he was gone, she probably didn't waste too much time thinking about the anxiety she experienced concerning his safety. She probably thought about how they lived their life in color, and tried to live it without fear.

She probably didn't harp on the times he cheated on her and the mistresses he kept. She probably thought much more about the the way he made love to her and the passion between them that created four children and fueled a movement.

When she remembered his funeral, her mind probably didn't immediately travel to the classic-but-morbid Life Magazine picture of she and their daughter, Bernice. She might have thought about later in the day after the funeral, standing in her front yard in a white dress, trying to figure out what was next and if she would have to share that journey with the world that took him away.

She likely didn't care about his visits to the Kennedy White House or his mixing and mingling with the nation's elite. She probably thought about the weight of the circumstances that brought Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and his wife to her quaint southern bedroom.

She probably didn't think about the fire bomb thrown into their home, or the crosses burned on the lawn there. She probably thought about what it was like to sleep in it all alone after he was gone.

My prayer is this: that when Coretta Scott King thought of the "King Legacy", she thought just as much about the revolution she was a key factor in building, and even moreso in maintaining clear up until her own death. I hope she thought about the meals she cooked, the children she bore, the ideas she helped generate, the energy she generated, the passion she infused, the love she provided, the security she offered, the calm she radiated, and yes, the draws and socks she picked up and washed and put back where they belonged...I hope she thought about how those things changed the lives of millions of Americans.

And so in my opinion, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day belongs just as much to Coretta Scott King as it does to its namesake. Not just because she held him down (and stayed fly while doing it), but because she continued his work after he was gone without anyone having her back (and stayed fly while doing that, too). She's a testament to the strength of a woman, not just because she supported him, but because she continued his work after he was gone without anyone to support her. She never remarried, but dedicated herself to a lifetime of service to the nation and people in need. She worked tirelessly to both influence legislation and continue the labor of grassroots change, all while preserving the integrity of her husband's ministry and protecting his legacy. The latter 20th century's most prominent civil rights leader raised four children alone in the deep south in the 1970's. Now that deserves a holiday.

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