“‘There is a Mrs. King. There is also Coretta. How one became detached from the other remains a mystery to me. Most people … 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. … But I am more than a label, I am also Coretta.’” — Coretta Scott King
The words above begin an intimate conversation between Coretta Scott King, which occurred several years before her death in 2006, and the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, local minister, journalist and author, shared in a new book about Mrs. King.
The recently published memoir, “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” chronicles King from her early commitment to the Civil Rights Movement to her eventual marriage to Martin Luther King Jr. — a decision that almost immediately catapulted her into the maelstrom of history.
Reynolds, a longtime friend of King, shared excerpts from the book on Saturday, Feb. 4 and participated in a question and answer session during her appearance at the Newseum in Northwest.
The weekend also marked the opening of the Newseum’s newest exhibit “1967: Civil Rights at 50.”
“I had already written two biographies but in accepting the job of writing a memoir, capturing the thoughts and soul of a person, was a greater challenge that required me to get out of the way,” said Reynolds, who remained committed to completing the book even after King’s death.
“It took me almost 10 years to complete the project because I had to struggle and negotiate with the three living siblings [Martin III, Bernice and Dexter King] who each had their own thoughts about what should be included in the book,” she said. “They each wanted to feel that the woman I presented was their mother and that it was really her story.”
“When Bernice finished reading it, she said it made her fall in love with her mother all over again. That was the greatest compliment and confirmation of my work that I could have ever imagined,” Reynolds added.
Reynolds shared several anecdotes that facilitated greater understanding about the complexities, choices and ultimate concerns that marked the life of Coretta Scott King after the murder of her husband.
“As we spent more time together, I became amazed by her courage,” Reynolds said. “After their home in Montgomery was bombed, Dr. King’s father told her that she and their infant child Yolanda needed to come with him to Atlanta for their own safety. She refused saying she had to stand with and support Martin. Despite receiving daily death threats, she maintained ‘I am stronger than a crisis.’ She realized that she was ‘married to the movement.’”
When asked to assess Mrs. King’s most lasting contributions to the movement and to securing her husband’s legacy, Reynolds cited two examples: the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and the establishment of a national holiday honoring the Jan. 15 birthday of Dr. King.
“She discovered that many of the men who supported Dr. King were unwilling to support her,” Reynolds said. “But she didn’t let that deter her. After the March on Washington, the men told her she needed to go back to the hotel so they could continue their work. She disliked feeling like ‘a caged bird’ that sang as Maya Angelou once described. She found ways to negotiate through the sexism that was typical within the Baptist leadership.
“I would describe her as more than just a civil rights leader. She was a human rights leader because she wanted to go beyond the ‘isms’ of the world,” Reynolds said. “Still I wonder, after so many years of nurturing Dr. King’s legacy, who will nurture the legacy of Coretta Scott King?”