reviewed by Patricia J. Williams
MY LIFE, MY LOVE, MY LEGACY
By Coretta Scott King, as told to Barbara Reynolds
Illustrated. 356 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $30.
Nearly every image of Coretta Scott King since her husband’s death has seemed suffused with preternatural stillness, her face fixed with the brave solitude of timeless interior bereavement. For all of her accomplishment and vivacity in real life, she has remained frozen in the collective imagination, among that sad pantheon of civil-rights-era icons: the political widow in a pillbox hat. King describes the weight of that identity in “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” her posthumous memoir, as told to the journalist Barbara Reynolds over a period of 30 years. “There is a Mrs. King. There is also Coretta. How one became detached from the other remains a mystery to me,” King says.
This book is distinctly Coretta’s story. While there is nothing to radically challenge the impression of her as carefully restrained, what makes “My Life” particularly absorbing is its quiet account of a brutal historical era, as experienced by a very particular kind of African-American woman: well educated, cautious, a prototypically 1950s-style wife and mother. The book’s cover features a picture of King, young and smiling, but still radiating that unmistakable aura of church-lady reserve.
Though such women have rarely been given voice, they were the staunch backbone of the civil rights movement. They raised funds as well as children, did the accounting as well as the housework, taught school and cooked the meals. They kept the minutes at N.A.A.C.P. meetings, played the organ at church, coordinated their husbands’ schedules.
Like Coretta Scott King, they operated within a regime that was both punishing and exhausting for being so utterly beholden to the politics of respectability. The pressure to disprove pervasive cultural stereotypes of slovenliness, ignorance, criminal threat and rapacious sexuality meant striving for perfection always. One could not risk being charged with the slightest human fallibility for fear of deadly retribution. The harshly unforgiving surveillance of the larger white community was reiterated within black communities as the stress of constant, and sometimes cruel, self-surveillance.
Living with terror is the thread that runs through “My Life.” This is a tale of church assaults before Dylann Roof, of cattle prods before there were tasers, of nooses before there were chokeholds, of Cointelpro before there was Breitbart, of voter suppression before anyone bothered to deny it. King’s earliest memories include her parents’ home being burned down when she was 15 years old. As she grows up, neighbors disappear. Bodies are found hanging from trees. Among the in-laws, her husband’s mother was shot and killed in the middle of a church service by a mentally disturbed man; his brother was found floating in a pool under suspicious circumstances; and when his father, Martin Luther King Sr., passes away at the age of 84, it marked “the first time any senior member of the King family had died a natural death.”
Some say that religion is, at base, a mechanism to handle the human response to mortality and loss. And for all the death and tragedy in “My Life,” it is King’s grounding in her husband’s theology of peaceful resistance that enables her survival against excruciating odds. Nonviolence, she reiterates, is not a matter of passively accepting whatever happens. It is active. It is a practice. As her husband preached: “Justice is really love in calculation.”
That power, of love as calculation, composes King, binds her together, time and again. Her practice of such belief is meditative, and becomes reflected in her diction: She speaks of endurance, overcoming, soul-sustenance for the long term. There is little in the way of open sadness in this book; after her husband’s assassination, she turns to the project of creating the King Center as a monument to him, filling the emptiness with boxes of his notes and speeches.
By the same token, there is a marked absence of expressed joy, other than at the birth of her children. Her emotions are muted in a way that is intriguing rather than off-putting. This disposition also presents the reader with a different way of looking at the world — one of extraordinary calm and the purest resolve. It is restful somehow, and generous, in a manner that is unfashionable in our culture of 24/7 emotional display. King’s language does not privilege personal happiness, private delights, exuberant emotional extremes of any sort. Rather, her life is filtered through prescribed priorities, devotions, principles, commitments. This is life lived in service to others rather than with concern for individual regard or even personal safety.
There is unusual inspiration in that mien. Before becoming King’s amanuensis, Barbara Reynolds was a journalist assigned to do a story for The Chicago Tribune. They became such good friends that Reynolds changed her vocation along the way: “Before I started hanging around with Mrs. King, I wasn’t much of a Christian.” But hang around she did, and by the time King died in 2006, Reynolds had become an ordained minister. It is but one small tribute to the power of the King family’s dedication to a “Ministry of Presence.” The larger, more ecumenical meaning of Coretta Scott King’s life, love and legacy may be found in the peace-lending power, needed now as never before, of prophetic traditions that hold us and heal, “bringing into existence images and a destiny we had not seen or lived before.”
Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr professor of law at Columbia University and a columnist for The Nation.
A version of this review appears in print on January 15, 2017, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Mrs. King and Coretta.