Admirers say King's strength was inspiring
By THOMAS C. TOBIN and JUSTIN GEORGE
Published February 1, 2006
Nearly 38 years have passed, and Kathy Walker still gasps with admiration at how Coretta Scott King responded to the death of her husband.
"He is shot in Memphis. She flies there with her kids. . . . Her husband is dead in a morgue, and she's marching the next day," said Walker, one of the highest-ranking black administrators in the Pinellas County school system.
Between the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his funeral five days later, his 40-year-old wife led 50,000 people through the streets of Memphis.
For Walker and other Tampa Bay area residents who reflected on Mrs. King's death Tuesday, those days in April 1968 stand as both a searing memory and the moment in history when Mrs. King's roles as spouse, mother and woman leader converged, making her a force.
"She knew how dangerous this whole thing was, but yet she had to be always strong for him, always strong for her children, always strong for her race," Walker said. "I don't think I could be that strong. . . . This woman was prolific and magnificent in her own way."
Tampa resident Olive "Florene" Jones, who briefly met Mrs. King in the 1960s, said she was struck by how her roles changed.
"When her husband died, the way she just rose to the front and took charge of her family and the programs he was involved in was kind of amazing," said Jones, who organized a march for King in Tampa.
Mrs. King founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, successfully pushed for a national holiday honoring her husband, became a women's rights champion and used her prominence to battle social and economic conditions in Africa.
"There is nobility in supporting a mission for the greater good, especially if it means compromising your own aspirations," said St. Petersburg NAACP president Trenia Cox, noting that Mrs. King set aside her own ambitions as a performing artist to work with her husband in the South.
"It's a loss for the civil rights movement," Cox said, "but it's also a testimony to the power of women working for social change."
Pat Spencer, the Hillsborough County NAACP elected secretary, grew up in Montgomery, Ala. The Kings moved into a friend's home less than 2 miles away.
Spencer, 69, volunteered in King's Montgomery Improvement Association office, located just across from her house, typing and filing whatever civil rights leaders needed. A visitor to the King home two or three times a week, she recalled asking Mrs. King how she met her husband and how she decided to give up her music career and marry him.
"She said his voice sounded very sweet to her," Spencer recalled, "sweeter than the voices she would have heard had she gone on with her singing career."
But Mrs. King never played backup singer to her husband's headliner role within the movement, say local residents who followed her career.
Instead, they said, the pair was viewed as a team with the same message - never bickering or questioning each other at a time when King was under heavy scrutiny and opponents were seeking to undermine him.
"She stood for the same thing he stood for," Spencer said. "She believed in the same things he did."
In a 1979 interview with the Times, Mrs. King both acknowledged and attacked the FBI wiretaps that purported to reveal her husband's liaisons with other women. She said it was difficult for her children to "have to read in the paper about Martin's morals and extramarital relations." She said some of the tapes were fabricated because she was with her husband when they were supposed to have been made.
Randy Lightfoot, social studies supervisor for Pinellas schools, said Mrs. King was a hero for many women.
"What we're just now beginning to understand is the role that women and children played in that movement," said Lightfoot, who is black. "Seventy-five percent of all people involved in the civil rights movement in the South were women and children."
He said many women bore the brunt of the punishment at civil rights marches that drew harsh reactions from police. Many women were arrested, allowing men to keep working and bringing in income for their families, he said. "It was a nice partnership."
After her husband died and the civil rights leadership started to splinter, Mrs. King was a leveling force, Lightfoot said.
"She was a steady reminder of just what kind of leader he was," he said.
Walker, the other Pinellas schools administrator, said Tuesday's news had her musing about whether Mrs. King was happy - whether she ever loved again, was proud of her kids or regretted giving up her own career.
"When did Coretta's needs ever come to the forefront?" Walker asked. "What about Coretta the person?"
WHEN: March 10, 1966.
WHY: A concert soprano trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, King gives one of her Freedom Concerts, which combine poetry, narration and music to tell the story of the civil rights movement.
WHERE: Pasadena Community Church to benefit the Happy Workers Nursery-Kindergarten.
WHAT SHE SAID: (On integration) "So many problems could be avoided if young white children could know young Negro children as playmates and friends," she tells the St. Petersburg Times before rehearsal, lamenting that schools of the time had only token integration. "They don't socialize after school. Then they're more bitter than if they had attended a segregated school."
WHEN: Oct. 27-28, 1979.
WHY: A speech to the Florida Education Association-United.
WHAT SHE SAID: (On government surveillance of her husband) "Martin was hounded and harassed everywhere he went," she tells the Times. "What they did to him they never did to anyone else in history.... I would not want to file a suit, but I think there ought to be considerable reparations given." She suggests a national holiday honoring her husband's birthday, a public endowment for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta and payments to her family.
WHEN: April 28, 1985.
WHY: University of South Florida commencement speech.
WHERE: The Sun Dome in Tampa.
WHAT SHE SAID: She calls for bans on new investment in South Africa, where apartheid remains in force, and criticizes the "feeble excuses and rationalization" of U.S. officials toward that government. "Be a drum major for justice," she says. "Be a drum major for love. Be a drum major for peace."
WHEN: Nov. 5, 1987.
WHY: Featured in the Distinguished Speaker Series at Eckerd College.
WHERE: Eckerd's Griffin Chapel.
WHAT SHE SAID: "A loving world is not a utopian dream," she tells an audience of 500 who give her a standing ovation. Recalling the early civil rights movement, she says nonviolence should never be confused with passivity. She laments "offensive and demeaning stereotypes" of blacks in radio, television and film. "We've come a long way toward equality," she says, "but we still have so far to go."
WHEN: May 19, 1996.
WHY: Eckerd College commencement.
WHERE: Eckerd's McArthur Gymnasium.
WHAT SHE SAID: "History is calling upon your generation to pick up the torch," she tells a crowd of 3,000, including 255 graduates. She laments increasing calls for segregated schools, saying, "Young people have so much to gain from interracial schooling." She urges students to work on ridding the world of drugs, violence, oppression, pollution and inadequate health care. "Now," she says, "we need you once again to lead us to a higher and more noble movement."
- Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin and Times researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom compiled this report.