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Op-Ed: The Life, Love, And Legacy Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And Coretta Scott King

An essay on their relationship, family dynamic, and how it impacted MLK and his civil rights movement.

Above the towel rack in my former apartment's master bath hung a canvas print of 1 Corinthians 13. "Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast; it is not proud..." In swirling gold and silver font, the text often recited at the Black weddings I've attended was my adult home's "Footprints in the Sand" moment. I placed it there years ago — a manifestation memo of sorts — to remind me to date with intention, keep God at the head of any relationship, and to only align with a partner who could uphold the standard of love I had determined for myself. Because what I realized years ago is that love is as much about emotional connection and mutual respect as it is about intentionally building an enduring legacy.

For white America, the Kennedys have often been seen to embody this idea. But for Black America, it has long been about the Kings. Martin and Coretta, hand in hand at marches, side by side at public appearances, lovingly embracing in family photos. These images of love, of legacy, in its most genuine form, were #couplegoals before Instagram ever popularized the term. And Coretta Scott King, a visionary in her own right, was a living definition of the old adage that beside every great man is an even greater woman. 

Today, as we observe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and celebrate his legacy of service and courage. We would be remiss not to honor the woman who made the day possible and who sacrificed for the greater good of the world we now know.       

"I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Coretta, I could not have stood up amid the ordeals and tensions surrounding the Montgomery movement," Dr. King once wrote. "I came to see the real meaning of that rather trite statement: 'A wife can either make or break a husband.' Coretta proved to be that type of wife with qualities to make a husband when he could have been so easily broken. In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope." 

It is this hope that made Martin Luther King's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement possible. Though MLK was the bold leader who organized, preached, and participated in the various events held in the name of justice and freedom, it was Coretta's support that encouraged his dedication to the cause. She was more than just a wife. Coretta was a fearless partner in the opposition work that would define an era. She was the protector of their family when King's work took him away from the home and their four children. She was a devoted activist committed to social justice and peace. 

On January 30, 1956, when a terrorist bombed the King home in Montgomery, Alabama, the celebrated matriarch was inside with their infant daughter. In the heart of the deep south,  the former capital of the Confederacy, months after their work began, she became well acquainted with the lengths at which detractors were willing to go to put a halt to the progressive movement stirring throughout the city's streets. And yet, Coretta, with a steadfast dedication to both her husband and to purpose, remained faithful to the cause. Her love was indeed patient.

Through various arrests, attempts on his life, and coordinated attacks on his name, Martin leaned on Coretta on the promise of their love and their shared goal of building a better future for their children to get him through the distressing times intended to break him. Coretta's love exhibited the kindness needed for Martin's long days and endless nights, chipping away at the oppressive systems designed to keep Blacks as second-class citizens in a nation we built. On that long walk to freedom, she was the well Martin drank from, the meal that sustained him, and the crutch that lifted him up when the cross he held seemed too heavy to bear. She was the unmovable, impenetrable rock that replenished his soul and restored his fight time and time again.

In the early days, King would send Coretta away to be with family to relieve the tension manifested by the struggle. "However she was never satisfied being away from me," King wrote. "She always insisted on coming back and staying with the struggle to the end."

On April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, King's physical involvement with the movement ended with a fatal shot by an assassin's bullet. And while it ended his life, Scott King ensured it did not end the legacy. The dedicated and loving wife that she was, she bravely took up the torch and boldly carried it until her dying day, cementing herself, in my eyes, as the poster child for that verse once displayed in my home.

I recently donated the canvas print that hung above my towels when I moved into my marital home. After staring at it for the better part of a decade, the manifestation memo was memorized, deep inside my heart, and had done what it was intended to do. While my legacy work is only just beginning, I am inspired by those who have already built their own. The world was forever changed by Martin and Coretta's love. I can only aspire to do the same.      

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