Mrs King, Keeper of the Flame

After Dr King’s death, Coretta Scott King, his widow, became the custodian of his reputation. Nathan speaks to Dr. Barbara Reynolds, Mrs. King’s longtime friend and co-author of her life story.

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FEMALE SPEAKER: After Martin Luther King’s death, his widow, Coretta Scott King, set about preserving and shaping his reputation. She set up and directed the King Center in Atlanta, and pushed tirelessly for the creation of a Martin Luther King Day holiday.

NATHAN: The journalist Dr. Barbara Reynolds was Coretta Scott King’s longtime friend and co-author of her life story, My Life, My Love, My Legacy. I asked Dr. Reynolds how she first met Coretta Scott King.

BARBARA REYNOLDS: Well, let’s go back to about 1972. The Chicago Tribune assigned me to do a cover story about her. And at that point, Coretta Scott King was like the first lady of civil rights. And I was a young reporter, so you have to imagine how that made me feel. I mean, to go and talk to Coretta Scott King. And she was in the basement of a church where she showed me the plans for the King Center.

NATHAN: Now at the end of King’s life, he had fallen greatly out of favor among many Americans. He was deeply unpopular, in part because of his views about the war. Certainly he hadn’t stopped pushing for various forms of racial justice. How much did she get concerned about what his reputation had been in legacy terms?

BARBARA REYNOLDS: Well, first of all, you have to understand that she was the builder. She was the architect of his legacy. Because when he was assassinated, she was one of a few people that wanted and made it her sole business to institutionalize his legacy, which was nonviolence. At the Center, for example, they taught nonviolence to thousands. Nonviolence was not just something that they said. It really was a program.

But also in the Center, she did one step more. And this is very important. She set up the apparatus for the King holiday. It’s now celebrated in at least 100 countries. And that, you know, it disturbed me at the time when people would say, you know, she is important to the King holiday. But in the King holiday when we’re all celebrating it, we often don’t even mention her name.

But she had 76 coalitions that she formed to get this going. She lobbied every senator in Congress to get this going. She organized five million signatures to get this established. And so this was not just something you should flick off and say, you know, she helped. No, she helped organize. It took her 15 years of her life to do that. And I think without a holiday, I think maybe he might have been forgotten, and he would not be larger than life, as he is now.

NATHAN: Now somewhat infamously, Coretta Scott King was not allowed to speak at the August 1963 March on Washington, nor were any women allowed to speak at that high watermark really in the forms of direct action in the civil rights struggle. Did she talk at all with you about what it felt like to be kept–


Please, by all means.

BARBARA REYNOLDS: You know, she didn’t get personally rattled and upset about a lot of things. But think about this march. Because Rosa Parks couldn’t even speak.

NATHAN: Right.


BARBARA REYNOLDS: Now I mean, you know, this is why this happened, because this brave lady, activist, NAACP secretary, she refused to move to the back of the bus. And that brought Dr. King and all the rest of it. She couldn’t even speak. You know, she had four children, so she couldn’t march always, but she had marched with some of the great campaigns with Martin.

And so when she was reading his speech and talking about, maybe you ought to add this, and he gave this speech, and it electrified the nation, after the speech, they got in the limousine, and they were headed over to the White House to meet with John Kennedy. But they got up to the White House door and they told the driver, we’ll send the ladies back to the hotel.

And she said, but Martin, I want to go see the president. And he says, this is not on the agenda. And she was very upset. And she went back to the hotel– oh, she was very upset, because she said, you know, John F. Kennedy had been so supportive in getting Martin out of jail. He had made a call to her, and she wanted to thank him personally. And of course, a couple months later, he died. And she said, I’m so sorry, because I never got to see him.

But you have to realize how sexist the black Baptist preachers were. Even when she was trying to build the King Center, so often they criticized her. And the same men who supported her husband didn’t want to support her. So I mean, sexism is not just something we see today. It was really alive and well among the movement people.

NATHAN: Now we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. And much of what Coretta Scott King did over the time after her husband’s passing, as you point out, has not really been fully appreciated. But what would you say were some of the best examples of Coretta Scott King’s political vision, her stick-to-itiveness her wherewithal in the decades that were left after her husband had passed away?

BARBARA REYNOLDS: Well, you have to understand, as she was like a political queen maker. I saw what happens when you really have influence inside politics, because more monies were funded to black colleges, more poverty programs were made so that people of all color who needed help could get help. You know, I haven’t seen that kind of influence myself since.

NATHAN: I’m really curious to know about this process of coauthoring this book with Coretta Scott King. She was looking at the full sweep of her life, thinking I’m sure about what the book would mean for future generations. What was that process like, and what did she imagine and hope would come of her own life history?

BARBARA REYNOLDS: When I was at the Center where her crypt is beside Dr. Martin Luther King, her husband’s crypt, I saw an eternal flame, and I became fixated at that. And it was because it was something she had told me in the book.

She said, I want people to know that I was committed to leaving an eternal flame built on love that would never be extinguished. I wanted this flame to touch lives, communities, and nations. I wanted it to ignite and inspire. I wanted it to be an urgent call to community and public service.

And she talked about it. She said, every heartbreak I ever had preceded a breakthrough. Every thorn that pierced me positioned me for the next level of challenges. My story is a freedom song from within my soul. It is a story of struggle. And when it is time for me to end this journey, I will count it all joy.