February brings the Oscars, and there’s been a lot of controversy over the movie Selma and how it treats President Lyndon Johnson. But February is also Black History Month, and we should revisit the struggle — not the movie version, but the real one where thousands put their lives on the line for voting rights.
Selma is rightfully centered on Dr. King, and has been rightfully criticized for the way it portrays LBJ. But there’s another slight that also distorts history, and that’s the role King’s wife Coretta played in the civil rights movement. The movie version puts her on the sidelines, a reluctant “little woman” who occasionally showed up, but mostly cowered at home. Not true.
Coretta Scott King made her own kind of history, with her husband and without him, both before and after his death. She was an advocate for children, and champion of the poor long before her marriage, and long after it ended with the tragic assassination of her husband in 1968.
Her long-standing peace activism was the genesis of King’s opposition to the Vietnam war. But because she was the wife of a great man, Mrs. King’s participation in the great social change movements of the 1960s and beyond is often minimized. She always advocated for women’s rights, and after her husband’s death, she became a fierce advocate for gay rights decades before it was fashionable.
What people don’t know — and Selma doesn’t show – is that Coretta King was in the line of fire as much as her husband was. She was the one who answered the phone when racist whites would call and say “I’m going to kill you.” She was the one alone with her baby when their house was bombed. This aspect of her life is not part of her profile as a leader — but she told her biographer she was tested alone. She could be trusted with trouble, and her husband knew that.
So as we celebrate and commemorate Black History Month, let’s remember Martin Luther King and all those that marched with him – especially his life partner Coretta, who never shrank from her duty to justice, before and after she wed the great man. She deserves proper recognition – as co-partner in one of the greatest liberation struggles of our age.
Listen to her biographer’s interview here, including rare audio of Coretta Scott King’s speech at the 1996 Atlanta gay rights rally.