Mini-Book Review: For Coretta Scott King, A Time To Break Silence

coretta

My Life, My Love, My Legacy.
Coretta Scott King, as told to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds.
Henry Holt and Company.
368 pp., $30.

The first First Lady of Black America has a lot to say, particularly since her first memoir, from 1969, was revised, not updated, about 25 years ago. Veteran Black journalist Barbara Reynolds, no stranger to chronicling the Civil Rights Movement, lets Coretta, who died in 2006, be Coretta, and the widow decided that meant turning her life into a Christian fable, a generation-filled testimony of faith and courage. The first half of the book re-hashes her time with MLK, but it’s the second half that awakens the reader from a black-and-white documentary slumber. That second act is where King details her struggles to create the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and makes sure to, in a gentle Christian fashion, settle old scores against her husband’s former comrades-in-arms.  So Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams and, later, the Black American apartheid activist Randall Robinson, are briefly portrayed as Black men who attempted to deny King the Black leadership mantle she said she inherited from God and Martin. King wanted this book to make clear to history that she was an important part of a dangerous movement for Black liberation (“We forged a rough and blood-drenched road, but Martin never looked for easy victories”). She convinces the reader that she was a well-respected national and international human rights leader in her own right–a Blackish heir to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was dubbed “The First Lady of the World,” and, to a lesser extent, singer-activist Paul Robeson. (Her story is sometimes candid, but other times exactly that, a story: for example, ignoring reams of documented history to the contrary, she claims her husband never cheated on her.) As Black America moves to permanently claim a younger, hipper, actual First Lady, it might be important to remember when thinking about both women that maintaining a public display of dignity–something they both mastered–was not enough; that it was direct, dangerous action against the forces of war, capitalism and white supremacy, accepting a life of risk that Coretta knew all too well, that made real, lasting history.

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