Dr. King had his fair share of idiosyncrasies and secrets he withheld from the public: he smoked (but was careful to never be photographed doing so), repeatedly cheated on his wife, had socialist political views but never sided with any specific political parties, and was struggling both mentally and physically at the time of his death to the extent that it's doubtful how much longer he could have continue his crusade (one account said he had the heart of a sixty year-old man).
I have no interest in tainting the legacy of this man, but understanding some of these things helps us understand his humanity a little better.
It’s easy to look at famous individuals, people who have achieved incredible feats, and see them as just that: individuals. But the truth is always a little more complex. Behind every great man, they say, is an even greater woman. And in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., his legacy is greatly indebted to his wife.
Dr. King was just a man. And like any man with a busy career, the stresses of travel and public pressure wore on him. So much so that it was hard to resist the temptations of adultery and even more difficult to take care of himself.
When we see certain individuals as saints, as heroic figures who transcend humanity, we tend to put them on a pedestal, making their accomplishments inaccessible to the rest of us. Which is a nice-sounding way of letting ourselves off the hook.
So what was it that made Dr. King successful?
Well, it was Mrs. King.
When you begin to understand the support such figures require, you have a much deeper appreciation of how movements are built. They never happen in isolation, due to the efforts of one man or woman. They always occur in the context of community.
So here are a few things that Coretta did for her husband:
- She stood by him, even after learning of his cheating. Due to suspected communist sympathies, the FBI had King under surveillance and in an effort to discredit him sent photographs documenting his infidelity to his wife. But she didn’t publicly act on the photos. She also didn't complain about the family’s financial struggles, which must have been difficult (King gave away his Nobel Prize money and was careful to appear as though he had never profited from the Civil Rights cause).
- She established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Action, which started in her basement a year after her husband’s death.
- She fought to establish the holiday that bears her husband’s namesake and is now commemorated as a symbolic holiday for civil rights and racial reconciliation.
Coretta didn’t complain, at least not publicly, about how much her husband traveled or how difficult it must have been to raise their four children practically alone, with limited resources. After King’s death, she became his greatest champion, completing the work that he set out to do. Without her, one has to wonder how much of King's work would remain today.
As a man, I know I would not be where I am without the support and encouragement of my wife. And it’s nice to know that’s probably more the rule than the exception. Maybe we should have a Coretta Scott King Day, as well. Or maybe we should simply reassess how we think of success as a solitary effort.
Individual achievement is always about the people behind the person. And the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King is no exception.
How can you credit successes in your own life to someone else? Share in the comments.