They say that behind every great man lies a great woman. This popular phrase holds true in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. As Martin led marches and protests during the Civil Rights Movement, Coretta was by his side every step of the way. An activist in her own right, she often spoke at rallies in her husband’s place and continued to fight for the rights of oppressed people after his death. What was it like to be married to the leader of the movement? How did Coretta handle the expectations of being Martin’s wife?
I find answers to these questions in Coretta’s autobiography/memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. The narrative exposes Coretta’s personal experiences both positive and negative as Martin’s wife and partner in the movement. Coretta met many of the important leaders of the time, like President John F Kennedy and Malcolm X. She was also afforded the opportunity to travel around the country and the world, including the 1964 trip to Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Coretta describes the joy she felt in sharing this experience with Martin:
“[W]hat a great privilege it had been, what a blessing, to live at the side of a man whose life would have so profound an impact on the world. It was the most important thing I could have done, and I had wanted to do it.”
Coretta reveals her important role as Martin’s support system, providing reassurance and comfort when her husband needed it most. When Martin experienced public and media backlash, he turned to Coretta for strength and encouragement. After the Kings’ home was bombed in 1955, Coretta stood by her husband’s decision to continue in the movement:
“Afterward Martin said to me, ‘Coretta, you’ve been a real soldier. I don’t know what I would have done if it had not been for you.’ […] I had always been a strong person, but I had not realized that Martin, so strong himself, did need me. I was very moved that he recognized this need.”
These personal anecdotes reveal the joys of being Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. She served as the leader’s confidante and partner while experiencing the Civil Rights Movement at the front lines. We also learn about Coretta and Martin’s deep love and respect for one another through the romantic anecdotes found in the narrative. It becomes evident that Coretta was very content and happy as Martin’s wife.
At the same time, Coretta reveals the trials and tribulations of being married to Martin. Specifically, the narrative provides important insight into the ways in which she sometimes felt marginalized and left in the background. For instance, Coretta wrestled with the decision to marry Martin, understanding the career sacrifices she would have to make:
“It was not until later in the fall that I finally decided that because I really loved Martin, I would go ahead and marry him and let the question of my career take care of itself. However, I was determined to go on and get my degree. I would finish that much, so I would have a sense of accomplishment, even though I would not have the kind of career I had planned.”
Coretta opens up about being marginalized as a wife and as an activist. It is no secret that women were relegated to background roles during the movement, and Coretta was no different. When detailing the momentous March on Washington, she describes how she felt when she was not allowed to join Martin at the front of the procession:
“I must confess… that I felt that the involvement in the Movement of some of the wives had been so extensive that they should have been granted the privilege of marching with their husbands and of completely sharing this experience together as they had shared the dangers and hardships.”
These quotes present some of Coretta’s contention in her duties as Martin’s wife. The tension between Coretta’s autonomy and gender expectations adds depth to the narrative. While she handled her role graciously, Coretta also dealt with many struggles and sacrifices. Coretta’s autobiography provides a glimpse into her marriage with Martin. She portrays a relationship built on love, faith, and friendship. At the same time, she highlights the difficulties of the marriage, although she never discusses Martin’s alleged infidelity. I imagine this deeply personal and painful topic did not fit into the positive tone of the memoir.
Nevertheless, Coretta’s personal story emerges, and readers learn about an important black female activist. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us take time to remember Coretta as more than just the woman behind the man.