For Coretta Scott King, A Widow’s Veil Hid Pain

People long in the public spotlight have a double life. There are exceptions, as when Billy Clinton’s idiocy and arrogance gave the country a good, long look at the side-by-side private and public lives of a living President. Something of the same was the fate that history had prepared for Coretta Scott King, who died a few weeks ago. Through no fault of her own, the general public knew more about her and her life than we are accustomed to get on this side of the grave.

Her death brought forth encomiums of the sort we always hear on the passing of famous strangers. Thus, Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) told the papers: “She was the glue that held the movement together.” In actuality, she had no central position. For a lot of the people “in the movement,” as they called it when there was one, Coretta Scott King was often an imperious pain in the butt. Nevertheless, if there is anyone living entitled to spin edifying legends, it is John Lewis, whose own obituaries, if they are honest, will call him a true leader and hero.

The Reverend Joseph Lowery, another figure who has earned the right to gild whatever lily he pleases, is quoted as saying, “She wore her grief with grace. She exerted her leadership with dignity.” However dubious the claims of leadership made on her behalf, there is no arguing that Coretta Scott King stood up to bombings, threats of murder, snarling cops and danger. She did her part.

Another minister hailed her as “the first lady of the civil-rights movement,” which almost makes it sound as if she had been presiding over a high tea. When you are called the first lady or first gentleman of anything, you’ve usually been relegated to a cobwebs, dust and ashes position. There are exceptions: Eleanor Roosevelt was called the “first lady of the world,” and she still packed a political wallop—but on her own, Coretta Scott King never did. From the time of her husband’s death, she played the honored-widow role, the famous person invited to assume first place in the march for the you-name-it worthy cause for the TV cameras to see.

Those are moments related to the public person, the standard, unreal image we have of the famous—who, we know, also have other lives, which we can guess at and gossip about, but which we don’t really know. Unless, again, it’s Bill Clinton. With Coretta Scott King, the public got quick, narrow shafts of information about her private life. It must have been no fun for her to put up with such intrusions, but her husband may have been the most famous man in the world on the day he died. No other figure in the last century has an American national holiday named after him (and in no small measure owing to her exertions).

Her husband was no sooner dead than the biographers set to work. The more they learned about the man she’d married, the more they learned about her. In reading those books, she may have learned things about her husband that she hadn’t known before.

However that may have played out, material was made public of the sort that most of us would prefer the world to know only after we are gone. It’s not that biographers like Taylor Branch—easily the best chronicler of King’s life—were out to get her; they were not. She was simply literary collateral damage.

The worst she had to endure during her long widowhood were the accounts of her husband’s relations with other women. Some of that was public, or almost public, when King was still alive, thanks to the F.B.I. circulating as much dirt as J. Edgar Hoover, its director, could dig up. Now, nearly 40 years later, we know that Martin Luther King was no more indiscriminate in matters sexual than President John F. Kennedy, his Attorney General brother and his other brother, Senator Teddy.

Since our society has been gifted with much leisure time and longer life spans in which to stray from the straight and narrow, who can say how deviate any of these people were, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s? However it was, it cannot have been easy for her to read (in the Branch biography) a scene that took place in her hospital room, where she was recovering from a hysterectomy and her husband was confessing to infidelity. On other occasions, some blunder or other revealed her husband’s hanky-panky to her. Unlike the Kennedys, who seem to have been constructed without the capacity to feel guilt in matters of this kind, King hated what he did and would repeatedly promise himself that he would amend his life, only to fail and fall into the arms of another woman.

It must have been painful for her to read about their quarrels over money. King had decreed that the family would live a life without luxuries. He insisted on a standard of living far, far below that of successful ministers and a chasm or two below the way world figures live. Nevertheless, they had four children, and she had things she wanted for them, not the least of which was college. She may have read Mr. Branch’s account of the fight she had with her husband when he announced that he was giving away his Nobel Peace Prize money.

In the many years subsequent to her husband’s death, occasional stories would surface in the papers about her and her children trying to make paydays for themselves by copyrighting King’s place in history. Other heirs do that kind of thing all the time, but because Dr. Martin Luther King was who he was, their making money off his memory did not sit well.

Another American hero’s private life and its effect on his public career have gone unexamined until now. That was Cesar Chavez. Both in his lifetime and after his death, the writing about him approached hagiography. The King family was subject to scrutiny, criticism and vicious attack, while Chavez was taken as he presented himself. It is only now that the public—or at least that part which reads the Los Angeles Times—has learned that Chavez, once the galvanic leader of Mexican-Americans and the Farm Workers Union, betrayed himself, his union and his cause by a Stalinoid tyranny in his union and simple corruption.

In a series of exhaustively researched articles on how the man who built this union wrecked it, Times staff writer Miriam Pawel concludes, “The decisions Chavez made a quarter of a century ago shaped the union and Farm Worker Movement today, turning it away from the core mission of organizing farm workers. His actions drove out a generation of talented labor leaders; he replaced them with handpicked loyalists—including many of the people now running the organization. He quashed dissent and increased his control just as the union’s growth made that more problematic.”

Ms. Pawel writes: “The union Chavez built now represents a tiny fraction of the approximately 450,000 farm workers laboring in California fields during peak seasons—probably fewer than 7,000 …. Chavez’s heirs run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farm workers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money …. Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.”

A generation of liberal journalists couldn’t or wouldn’t see what was going on with Chavez. The adherents of causes hate publicity that is less than adulatory, and their anger is intimidating to the news media, although editors do not admit it. If a story might open a publication to accusations of insensitivity, racism, homophobia, etc., it is the rare editor who says damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.

The unfavorable publicity given Martin Luther King may have pained Coretta Scott King, but it did not snatch her or her husband from their rightful and honorable place in American history. The lack of unfavorable publicity put Chavez in the liberal, if not the American, pantheon, where, it turns out, he may not belong.

Truth will out, but if it’s late arriving, who cares?

For Coretta Scott King,  A Widow’s Veil Hid Pain