When I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center this past January, during the celebrations for Dr. King’s birthday, I walked past the crypt, nestled in a sky blue reflecting pool, where both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King are buried, and my eyes fixated on the eternal flame there. In the closing lines of her memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, Mrs. King compares herself to a flame: “I want people to know that I was committed to leaving an eternal flame, built on love, that would never be extinguished.” She certainly did believe in a life built on the flame of love, but what often struck me while I knew her, while I was taping her remembrances so that they could later become her memoir, was how much the flame of her life was also made of courage.
Her favorite slogan was “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity,” a quote from Horace Mann, the founding president of Antioch College, where she had been a student. She often said those words aloud. And what so amazed me is that she actually meant them. Many times she put her life on the line. When her house was bombed in 1955 during the Montgomery bus boycott, her father and Dr. King’s father demanded that she take her infant and go back to Atlanta. She refused. She knew if she left, Dr. King would follow. If that had happened, there might not have been a bus boycott nor the many victories that stemmed from it. The bombings all around her, the death threats against her and her loved ones, and the government harassment didn’t stop with Montgomery, but she downplayed all the dangers to keep from piling mental stress on her four children.
Her courage fascinated me because I wanted that kind of courage but just didn’t have it. As a student I made my first trip down South to help register blacks to vote shortly after the passage of the 1965 voting rights bill. From my closed environs in Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up, I had never given thought to the possibility that my brown face could conjure enough angst in anybody that it would make them want to kill me. Yet it happened. In 1965, our group of students was chased by the KKK and a roadblock was set for us. We escaped, but during a protest march, the police came and ordered us to disperse. The only reason I did not run was because my arms were locked, trapping me with the others. Just that one brief encounter with Southern violence terrified me. The experience showed up in my night dreams and nightmares for years.
I’d had a taste of what courage looked like, and I didn’t have it. Mrs. King did. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, she was a great American hero who was willing, at any given moment and over the long haul, to give her life to set others free.
And yet, as she put it, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” For those fighting and winning freedom in this generation, the story of her flame of courage may be as inspiring and emboldening, as life changing, as it was for me. This is how her memoir of courageous living begins:
“There is a Mrs. King. There is also Coretta. How one became detached from the other remains a mystery to me.
“Most people who have followed my career from afar, or even given me a second thought, know me as Mrs. King: the wife of, the widow of, the mother of, the leader of. Makes me sound like the attachments that come with my vacuum cleaner. In one sense, I don’t mind that at all. I’m proud to have been a wife, a single parent, and a leader. But I am more than a label. I am also Coretta.
“Isn’t it time you know the integrated, holistic woman: one spirit, one soul, one destiny?
“As I reflect upon the chapters of my life, peering into the margins and fine print as well as at the boldly illuminated headlines, I am simply amazed. I was born on April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Alabama, at a time and in a place where everything I would eventually become was impossible even to imagine.
“Who could have dreamed that a little girl who began life as a part-time hired hand picking cotton for two dollars a week in the piercing hot sun would rise to a position that allowed her to help pick U.S. mayors, congresspersons, and even presidents? Or that in the 1950s and 1960s, when a woman’s place (and sometimes her imprisonment) was clearly defined as the home, I would be both an avowed homemaker and a liberated feminist? That I would be able to help build a human rights movement while also raising four beautiful children? And by no means did I dare think as a child that I could ever help create a more humane environment for African Americans: from my earliest childhood, whites regularly terrorized our family, and it was not a crime. In the 1940s and ’50s, one dared not dream of equality under the law. We could not sleep in our beds without fear of being burned out by white vigilantes. We could not walk in the front door of an ice-cream parlor without being shooed to the back. We had to step off the sidewalk and lower our eyes when a white person approached. This is the narrow door I entered as a young girl. It is not the same door from which I will exit.
“The movement did not only lift blacks. It elevated the entire nation toward a place of true respect, love, and justice that transcends race, color, or creed. I call that place the Beloved Community. The road to the Beloved Community is the road of nonviolence. The roadblocks are hate and prejudice. We are not there yet. But there are more doors open than ever before. We stand on the cusp of a new day, one brimming with possibilities that once lived only in the restricted passageways of our dreams.”
This post has been adapted and excerpted from MY LIFE, MY LOVE, MY LEGACY by Coretta Scott King as told to The Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, with permission of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2017 by the Estate of Coretta Scott King. For more, visit http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781627795982