The United States experienced a very somber anniversary on April 4th. Fifty years
ago, on that date, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead on the balcony of the Ambassador Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only thirty-nine years old.
It is, of course, highly fitting that the anniversary of both his birth (January 15th) and his death should encourage reflection over his legacy. Dr. King was a believer in non-violence, agape, forgiveness; his words, actions, and philosophy embodied the Christian teaching of love-thy-enemy. King clung to nonviolence even as many around him -former allies- rejected his call for forgiveness and shunned his public denunciations of U.S. conduct in Vietnam, endemic American poverty, and persistent institutional racism.
By April 4th, 1968, King had become a pariah in many political and journalistic circles
and was alienated from former allies like The New York Times, President Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and The Washington Post. Of course, upon news of his death, politicians and newspapers alike rushed to laud and memorialize him, echoing President Johnson’s observation that Dr. King “symbolized the freedom and faith of America.” It is well known, however, that President Johnson authorized FBI surveillance of Dr. King, continuing a practice begun under his presidential predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the decades since his death, historians of the Civil Rights Movement and King’s
biographers have wondered whether King, had he lived, would have remained a leading and
transformational figure in the face of a Black Power movement that rejected his call for agape and “turn the other cheek.” After his death, many African American dissidents turned toward harsher and more scathing voices like those Amiri Baraka, Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver.
But in the midst of the many reflections upon the life of Dr. King and the meaning of his
work, the life of his widow, Coretta Scott King, has often been neglected. While Mrs. King is a well known public figure and activist in her own right, it has not been fully appreciated what April 4th, 1968 meant to her and to her four children.
Mrs. King, who was educated at the prestigious Antioch College in Indiana and who was
a talented musician, writer, thinker, and public speaker, consciously stood in the background while her husband became the public face of the Civil Rights Movement. She was the one at home in Montgomery, Alabama with her infant daughter Yolanda in 1956, when her house was bombed during the famous Bus Boycott. She was also the one who routinely picked up the telephone, receiving call-after-call threatening her life, the life of her husband, the lives of her children. And, of course, she was the one who endured the persistent rumours of her husband’s marital infidelity and harassment by the FBI (who monitored her until 1972). Still, she managed to raise four children, act as sole breadwinner, and remain an activist, establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta among other accomplishments. It must be remember -and repeated- that it was she who kept house, reared the King children, and undertook the myriad tasks of domestic production which made her husband’s work possible.
When her husband was killed, Coretta Scott King was widowed with four children. The
King estate was meagre and did not provide for the future care and education of Yolanda, Dexter, Martin, and Bernice. Dr. King’s life was not insured and he and Coretta were not homeowners on account of the fact that her husband did not believe in wealth acquisition. Neither was he an investor; Mrs. King and her children did not stand to inherit mutual funds or investments and the entirety of Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize honorarium ($54,000) had been donated to the cause of Civil Rights.
It is well that we recall the challenges that Mrs. King faced in the days and weeks,
months and years following her husband’s murder. Far too often historians, journalists, and filmmakers ignore the unpaid labour of women and mothers that keeps households solvent and which enables the work of social change. In the King household, the countless sacrifices made by Mrs. King remained in the shadows of her husband’s public leadership and only recently have become the subject of historians studying the Civil Rights Movement. This is a welcome change in historical scholarship.
Perhaps in 2018, a year of many somber anniversaries in the United States, it is time at
long last to celebrate the life of the King family and not just the noble and essential work of the late Dr. King. After all, he was one who acknowledged that his career would not have been possible without the love, support, and loyalty of his wife, Coretta.
Note: Readers should watch the 60 Minutes visit to the King household just before Christmas 1968, from 11:37-24:52.
Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, teacher, poet, Socratic educator and podcaster based in London, Ontario with his partner Michelle and two young daughters.
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