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Coretta Scott King's memoir shocks while it inspires

MEMOIR

My Life, My Love, My Legacy

By Coretta Scott King, as told to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds

Henry Holt and Company

358 pages, $30

"On Thanksgiving Night 1942, when I was fifteen years old, white racists burned our house to the ground," Coretta Scott King reveals first in this inspiring and still shocking memoir. Her father had built the house with his own hands in 1920 on her grandfather's land.

"My mother's wails pierced my daddy's heart," King recalls, but not for long. " 'We don't have time to cry,' he told us. He led us in prayer and told us to give thanks because we still had our lives," she continues. "The very next day, he went to work like nothing had happened." That kind of evil, "the postcard from hell, would follow me for the rest of my days," she writes, and we are only in the ninth paragraph of 358 pages.

By that ninth paragraph, she has described the rule of terror that the 1857 Dred Scott decision still imposed on the South during the 1940s. She has sketched her family's history and status as business owners in dangerous competition with some whites. She has provided a most eloquent profile of her parents, their unwavering religious faith and fortitude.

And she has set the scene not only for confronting the evil that did in fact follow her for the rest of her days, but also for her lifelong work: with her charismatic husband, chipping away at that evil, eventually crippling the Jim Crow laws that had turned the South into one giant dungeon for its black citizens.

When, early in their marriage, a bomb exploded on the front porch, she grabbed her baby, ran to the back of the house and began to plan with friends, before the smoke had even cleared, nonviolent ways of responding to the terroristic act.

Her title, "My  Life, My Love, My Legacy," lays out the book's structure. Note the repeated use of "my." King sets out to tell about her life, before, during and after her marriage, a true love match, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Most tellingly, after his death, she was more interested in continuing his legacy than in a sparkling social life, but at the behest of well-meaning friends did "date" a couple of companions. She names them and tells us what nice people they were. She then lets us know beyond the shadow of a doubt that after changing the history of the world beside Dr. King, marriage to anyone else was no contest.

She also confronts ugliness: the rumors, spread most effectively by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, of "sexual shenanigans" involving her husband. She even listens to surveillance tapes supposedly revealing marital misdeeds and finds nothing. Nothing is there, just a lot of muffled conversation. In her characteristically straightforward way, she dismisses the accusations outright. She uses her energy in caring for her four children and establishing a memorial to her husband. Less worthy activities -- dispelling the accusations, for example -- are of no interest to her.

Financial security was not among Dr. King's legacies. He did not believe in owning property -- not even a car, let alone a house. The family lived with friends and family members or rented houses when they moved away. Graciously, King mentions the lifelong help that singer Harry Belafonte offered them, and the pleasant condo Oprah Winfrey provided later for Coretta Scott King. The later complaints of artists required to pay license fees for the use of quotations from Dr. King's speeches, sermons and other work lose resonance in light of the financial facts the family had to cope with.

About the Thanksgiving Day fire, King remarks that she was only 15 at the time, but not naive. She often casts a discerning eye in some surprising places. Her husband was arrested by police officers who also may have been Klansmen, then handcuffed -- tightly -- and taken for a long drive, eventually arriving at the Reidsville jail. Since "not everyone who was arrested came home alive," her relief at learning that he indeed was alive tempered her disdain for the oafs who not only tried to terrorize her husband but who also were holding him "in some backwater jail."

She posits that Dr. King was right when, on their first date, he told her he expected his eventual wife to have certain characteristics and what they were. She was appalled. Here she was, a graduate of prestigious Antioch College, a graduate student at New England Conservatory of Music aiming for a career in classical music, and this stranger, a little on the short side, yet, is telling her she qualifies for wifehood. We all know how it turned out, but the way she dealt with his quirks is enough to fill a book.

For example, he did not want his wife to work outside the home. Well, married to him, with the phone ringing constantly, rallies and gunfire, not to mention the eventual Nobel Peace Prize and worldwide renown, she would have had to take too many workdays off anyway. But she dearly missed performing.

Money always was short, sometimes more painfully than at others. Meanwhile, Coretta King had been impressed by "Freedom Concerts" given by Paul Robeson, which included some readings, some folk songs and Negro spirituals. Robeson, whose voice has been described as like the humming of a million bees, set a high performance standard, in no way intimidating soprano King.  When the movement was scraping bottom financially, she designed some Freedom Concerts of her own, performing around the country and enriching the movement musically as well as financially.  How could any husband object?

Later in life, she became a member of a prestigious social organization whose members were required to attend every meeting or explain why. After her husband received the Nobel Peace Prize, she traveled the world and had to miss some club meetings, moving some members to make up sarcastic nicknames for her.  She ignored the nastiness, but right here, in black and white forever, she names them.

Among the photographs in"My Life, My Love, My Legacy," one favorite shows Jacqueline Kennedy offering condolences on the day of Dr. King's funeral in 1968. In another, Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, and Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, smile together with Coretta Scott King on a kind of "girls' night out" in 1995.  These widows of martyred husbands, acquainted with a grief few ever experience, comforted each other during their lifetimes and offer the rest of us examples of making sense of such tragedy.

They prayed, then they went back to work. No sitting around with a lily in the hand. And to anyone tempted to use their work for political purposes or for some financial benefit -- tread carefully.

Coretta Scott King could sing the most exalted arias, and she also knew a backwater jail when she saw one. She has put so many valuable lessons into this memoir that it could help worriers who have much less to fear than their house being burned down by racists. First, you pray, then. . . .

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.

 

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