Martin and Coretta are Both Gone Now. It Is Not Their Battle No More

She signed my book in true Antiochian-to-Antiochian fashion, by quoting the school’s visionary leader Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

It was the Antioch connection, I can’t doubt, that made it possible for me to even be there in the first place. That was where she went to school in the late ’40s, escaping the oppression of rural Alabama, following her sister up north to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to pursue her dreams of a life in music at a progressive institution called Antioch College. It was the Antiochian ethic of service for the betterment of society that helped set the stage for her life as an activist for justice and peace. And when her vision of a legacy institution for her slain husband, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change, began its internship program in the ’70s, she had to have been the one to make sure that Antioch students knew about the program and had a chance to apply (although, to my knowledge, I was the only one who ever did).

So yes, Coretta Scott King and I shared a specific bond, and a moment in time. I’ve written here about my experiences at the King Center (Negritude 2.0: The Long Shadow of the Dream), about how our visit to her home (where she signed her autobiography for us) was the culmination of a challenging summer. She sang a concert selection for us that late August afternoon, still standing in first position after all those years of training and performance — but we never wondered, really, what might have come of her music career had not marriage, motherhood, and the sweeping arc of history changed her life’s direction. We were too busy feeling a bit of privilege for such thoughts to occur.

That performance was a glimpse into the Coretta Scott King that only her family and intimates knew, not the one on the news and (already) in the history books. We saw Coretta the warm and gracious host, telling us stories, taking us interns and seekers under her wings. Her charm alone could not compensate for the troubled program we experienced, but that afternoon was a look inside the inner workings of the civil rights movement that wasn’t in any of the historical analyses we studied.

I saw her again a few years later, at the Antioch commencement of 1982 (two years after my own graduation). She was the commencement speaker, which was something of a major event — her first trip back to Antioch in a long time, certainly since I’d been there. I made the trek back to my old stomping grounds as much to hear her speak as to see a bunch of my old friends graduate. Indeed, it was a memorable experience, although I wish I could tell you that 10 minutes after she finished, I could remember a single word she said.

It gets hot early in the morning in southwestern Ohio in June, and after a long night of partying the last thing most folks really want to do is bake away in the noonday sun, with neither water nor sunscreen nearby, and pay attention to somebody giving an important-sounding speech. There’s no shaded area in the great lawn where Antioch commencements are held, so anyone who wanted to see her give her address did so under a cloudless sky. Had she been reasonably concise, that would have been enough. But she went on, and on, and on, and I’m sure her words were very heartfelt but after a while none of them stuck out. All I remember is the droning of her formalized speechifying, and the heat, and the periodic dozing off on the grass behind the graduating class. Maybe I’d have been better off had I gotten some actual sleep the night before.

From that day to this, I knew Coretta Scott King the same way most everyone did: as a presence for justice and voice for peace, a living and breathing testament to the sweeping arc of history. She was somebody who was simply always there, be it protesting apartheid, railing against war (she and others raised holy hell to keep the 1991 attack against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait from launching on January 15, her slain husband’s birthday and by then a national holiday), or honoring the best in children’s literature.

When Today broke the news of her death on January 31, I was transported back to that afternoon in Atlanta, to that inscription in a book I would later give to an actor portraying Dr. King in a one-man show. Mrs. King and I shared and acknowledged a connection to a special and wonderful place, a place that, in different eras and different ways, forged common and lasting values in both of us, and in many others as well. It is a connection I am proud and blessed to know, because Coretta Scott King won many victories for humanity.

Send the family no flowers, please. Contribute instead to the Coretta Scott King Scholarship Fund at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

* * *

Yolanda King, the elder daughter of Martin and Coretta, once told me that she almost went to Antioch, too. But on the occasion of her visit, she said, the place was crawling with dogs. Not the two-legged species commonly referred to as “men”, but the four-legged kind, wagging tails and all. Musta been about 200 such critters, she guesstimated, which is indeed a lot on a campus of maybe (at the time) 800 or so students. Such a population was apparently enough to send her elsewhere for her schooling. Perhaps that is why the Bob Dylan lyric “if dogs run free, why not we?” was such a common scribbling on dorm walls when I arrived there a few years after her visit.

I pass along that anecdote not to brag about any particular connection — that is, in fact, my only direct experience with any of the four King children — but to get at their dual reality. In addition to growing up black and middle-class in the ’60s and ’70s, they were part of that sweeping arc of history. The photograph of Coretta dressed in black, holding a tearful Bernice in the pews at Martin’s funeral, occupies a place in our American memory next to young John-John Kennedy saluting the November 1963 procession that carried the casket of his slain father, President John F. Kennedy. Martin Luther III, Dexter, Bernice and Yolanda are, for all their individual achievements, the children of two extraordinary people, and because of that have often been expected to be extraordinary, too.

Is that fair? Probably not. But is that also understandable, to a certain extent, even unavoidable? Probably so. By all accounts, the King children have led solid, decent lives as adults. They’ve had their successes and setbacks, their wise moves and questionable decisions, like all of us. But because they are the children of Martin and Coretta, that has never been quite enough. Their career choices and ventures — Martin III’s venture into Atlanta politics in the ’80s, Bernice’s work in the clergy, Yolanda’s record as a performer, and most controversially Dexter’s stewardship of the MLK intellectual and social legacy — invariably get examined through a subjective but unforgiving prism. They will always be the children of a shaper of history and his noble, devoted wife, a major figure in her own right. People will always want to believe that their parents live on through them, even to the extent (for some) that they’ll look to see the parents in the children more than they’ll see the children as themselves.

Dexter confronted the burden in Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir (written with Ralph Wiley; Warner Books, 2003):

“Yes, my siblings and I are the sons and daughters of Martin Luther King, Jr; products of our environment,” he wrote, “but we’re also our own individual men and women, and we have our own views about politics, love, relationships, life. We don’t want to be relegated to running from who we are; we want people to know us presently and in the future rather than from the past; the past is history and not very pretty, and we have to know what happened so we can make it over. That’s what we’re grappling with — to understand the past, get somehow behind it, as the children of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Those sentiments are probably shared, to one degree or another, by every child of a major world figure. Yet for the Kings, there is not likely to be much interest in their individual lives, at least in the short term. As the time of their grieving subsides, there looms the disposition of a major part of Coretta’s legacy, which was conceived as a way to keep Martin’s flame alive.

The King Center where I interned is in bad shape. I wrote before about how the facility had fallen on hard times; such times have not gotten better since then. It is currently in need of $11 million of repairs, according to a study by the National Park Service last year. Last summer, there was a nasty power spat over control of the center, with Martin III being voted chairman of the board over Dexter, only to see Dexter lead a takeover one month later. Currently, Dexter and Yolanda advocate selling the center’s physical plant to the federal government, while Bernice and Martin want to block such efforts.

On the face of it, this isn’t completely different from the dilemma of adult children, all with lives of their own, who must decide what to do with the family homestead once both parents have passed. But the King Center isn’t just any old family homestead. The Center never realized its full potential as a place of study and research for historians and budding activists alike, but that potential remains intact under the right management and support. There is no other institution quite like it, and I remain as hopeful as ever for its survival.

The family’s attempts to capitalize on King’s likeness, writing and speaking — the Martin Luther King, Jr. brand, if you will (Dexter once consulted Graceland to find out how they keep the Elvis brand going) — have been decried far and wide, even as it’s been freely acknowledged that they’ve never been particularly wealthy and could use the income. And the children have the right to hand off day-to-day custody of the legacy if that’s what they want to do. In essence, they’d be selling the family business, and family businesses often get sold once the founders move on. But it’s absolutely right to question whether the same federal government that hounded King to his death is now the proper agency to oversee his memorial.

I trust that in the weeks and months to come reflection, sober discussion, and appropriate negotiation will take place, and a proper and fitting course for the King Center’s future can be charted. And after that, one hopes, the children of Martin and Coretta will be able to go on with their lives with grace and good humor. I suspect that their parents would not want it any other way.

* * *

Random measures of the distance between April 4, 1968 and January 30, 2006:

In April of 1968, my grandmother couldn’t understand why the Polaroid picture she tried to take of the telecast of Martin Luther King’s funeral didn’t come out. The other day, I downloaded a copy of the program from Coretta’s funeral. (

On the day Coretta died, a place on the national Mall in Washington DC, not far from the Washington Monument, was selected as the site of the forthcoming National Museum of African American History. On the day she was buried, some fool burned down four churches, each serving a black congregation, in rural Alabama (after five other churches had been burned down the week before). And also on that day, the forever-troubled nation of Haiti, the poorest and blackest nation in the Western Hemisphere, held elections to choose new leadership, two years after a coup sent the previous president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, into exile.

Mrs. King’s funeral was held in a state-of-the-art megachurch in the second ranking richest-black-population county in the country. This would have been unfathomable when Martin was buried: that his wife’s homegoing would be marked in a facility pre-wired for lavish productions, that such palaces would eclipse the humble sanctuaries and storefronts that black churches have called home for 200 years, that there would be a suburban outpost of wealthy black people in seven-figure mansions to support such a massive institution, and that the whole thing would be located not far from Stone Mountain, the park commonly seen as the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy.

Funny, how time and the sweeping arc of history fly…

* * *

My fellow King Center interns and I chafed at all the celebration of the movement’s glory days we had to sit through back in the summer of 1978. We didn’t see the point of it, the relevance to our lives, or even the need for it. In retrospect, I understand that impulse a little better (although I still think there was too much looking in the rear-view mirror for a supposedly progressive force). Historians had not gotten around to collecting and preserving those stories. They were beginning to recede from the forefront of popular awareness, even though they still retained a freshness, and in some cases were still being lived and written. Not enough time had passed to see them in a detached light, to better measure both their intricacies and the fullness of the accomplishments they chronicled. But the folks who actually created that history wanted to make sure that their stories wouldn’t be subsumed and obscured like so many other tales of courage and bravery in the face of racial oppression.

Now, of course, things are different. There are biographies, autobiographies and voluminous studies on the era. Oral histories have been collected and shared. Just this year, there’s a new book out about the Freedom Riders (Raymond Arsenualt’sFreedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford University Press) and the completion of Taylor Branch’s monumental three-volume “America in the King Years” history. This fall, the seminal documentary Eyes on the Prize will return to the airwaves (one hopes that someday, it will be available on DVD for this and future generations).

And America held a state observance when Rosa Parks died. Thurgood Marshall was commemorated on a stamp (ditto Roy Wilkins, and also Malcolm X). Coretta, Stevie Wonder and a nation of millions made MLK’s birthday a federal holiday (even if it took some states years to acknowledge it). So there is no need, it appears, to worry that the stories of what it was like to face down those dogs and water cannons, to confront segregation at its meanest and vilest, will ever be relegated to history’s cutout bin. That information will always be available, I trust, to those who want (and/or need) to study and learn from it. Those years will forever be acknowledged as a pivotal moment in American history.

Conversely, there still exists, sad to note, the impulse to hug King as a cuddly dreamer rather than pick up his baton in the spirit of nonviolent activism for fundamental change in how America functions at home and in the world. Politicians routinely pay lip service to his vision of racial tolerance, most recently in both President Bush’s State of the Union Address last month and the Democratic response (which both offered gushing platitudes in Coretta’s name but no connection between her values and their agenda), and ignore his demand for economic justice. Conservatives twist his words to suit their non-Kingian agenda (such as notorious conservative Shelby Steele alluding to the “I Have a Dream” speech by titling his “personal responsibility” screed Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America) (St Martins Press, 1990), a far more devious and dangerous subversion of his image than using his likeness to sell computers or cell phones. (Perhaps a revitalized King Center can make a priority of setting the record straight as to what King actually said and meant.)

And of course injustice still exists, as well. We saw it in the conduct of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections (have you talked to your Congressional officials about the extension of the Voting Rights Act lately?). We saw it after Hurricane Katrina washed ashore. We see it in the conduct of the war in Iraq. We see it in our underfunded, overburdened educational system. We see it in a ghetto mindset that accepts murder as a fact of life, along with isolation from jobs and the lack of fresh produce in neighborhood groceries.

The passing of Coretta Scott King effectively bequeaths the responsibility for building on our historic successes and correcting our current injustices onto us and our children. That responsibility has been on our shoulders all along, mind you, but now it’s official: the generation that desegregated America has done its work, and has earned its rest. Many members of that cadre — Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Rev. Joseph Lowery, former UN ambassador Andrew Young, and others — still lend their voices to the cause, and we are grateful for and respectful of their ongoing contributions. But it’s up to us, whose songs of freedom come with a hip-hop beat, whose advocates preach online instead of on street corners, who live in a world multicolored beyond just black and white, to assume our awesome legacy and move the mountain some more.

For all that we’ve gained, so much more work remains. For all the mansions and megachurches we build, so many families still need housing, so many institutions still need basic support. For all the water fountains that everyone can drink from now, so many children still go to bed hungry. For all the platitudes offered in tribute to the land of the American Dream, so many Americans can only dream about what such a place might actually be like.

For all that Coretta Scott King and so many others fought, prayed, lived, and died for, so many victories for humanity remain to be won.