"I certainly appreciate your concern, and I would appreciate anything that you can do to help." That was the dignified but worried request for help that Coretta Scott King made in a phone conversation with then-Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.
There was good reason for worry and the plea for help. In early 1959, her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was sentenced to four months of hard labor at Georgia's notorious Reidsville State Prison after being arrested on a trumped up traffic warrant and for violating probation.
The second charge stemmed from the Rev. King's earlier arrest at a sit-in demonstration. Coretta was deeply pained that the Rev. King might not make it out of Reidsville alive. There had been rumors and threats of foul play against him. During the tense days of the Rev. King's imprisonment, Coretta had frantically worked the phones trying to get any help she could toward his release.
At the time, Kennedy was locked in a tight White House race with Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy made the call partly out of sincere concern for the Rev. King, and partly with an eye on the Black vote. Coretta's efforts paid off for the Rev. King — and Kennedy — and sunk Nixon. The Democrats turned the call into a giant public relations coup; Kennedy's action was credited with tipping large numbers of Blacks toward the Democrats.
Nixon, the early odds on favorite to win the presidency, lost by a narrow margin. The Rev. King was soon released unharmed, and the civil rights movement gained greater steam and vigor in the next couple of years. Coretta's dogged determination to save her husband energized the civil rights fight and changed the course of a presidential election and race relations in America.
It was fitting that Kennedy's life-affirming and politically profound phone call was made to Coretta. In December 1955, she and the Rev. King anxiously kept watch at the front window of their home in Montgomery, Ala. to make sure that there were no Black riders on the buses. She stood, walked and cheered arm-in-arm with him at countless civil rights marches, demonstrations and rallies.
She endured the Rev. King's long absences and the gossipy rumors of his infidelities and kept the family and the marriage together. That meant great personal sacrifice.
For years, the King family lived in what charitably could be described as a ramshackle house. As his family grew in size, friends and family members begged him to move to a larger house; the Rev. King resisted.
An exasperated Coretta fired back at the King critics that he "felt that it was inconsistent with his philosophy" to own property. Eventually, the Rev. King gave in and paid the grand sum of $10,000 for a bigger home. But he continued to complain that the house was too "big" and "elegant." Though King critics delighted in taking took pot shots at him for his rejection of personal wealth and the ownership of private property, Coretta's great concern remained in fulfilling the Rev. King's dream, and that did not include fattening their bank account.
In the decade after the Rev. King's murder, Coretta did not fade from the scene. She continued to storm the barricades against racial injustice, economic inequality, military adventurism, hate crimes and violence.
She continued to fiercely protect the Rev. King's legacy from the opportunists that twisted and sullied his words and name. In 1996, a group of Black ministers in Miami circulated an anti-gay rights flier bearing the picture of the Rev. King to hundreds of Black churches in Miami-Dade County. In a public statement, Coretta denounced the ministers and noted that the Rev. King would be a champion of gay rights if he were alive.
A month before President Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed the King holiday bill in November 1983, he made a public crack about the Rev. King being a possible Communist sympathizer. Coretta was hurt and stung by his false and insensitive slander. A chagrined Reagan quietly called her and apologized.
The friction over the affairs of the King Center that cropped up in recent days will not alter the judgment of history about Coretta. She and the Rev. King shared the same relentless passion and vision that helped permanently transform American society and enrich the lives of millions of Americans of all races.
She was more than just the Rev. King's wife.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.