A noted activist in her own right, Mrs. King sat with us a year before she passed away to discuss the enduring legacy of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Civil rights activist Coretta Scott King
Tavis: As we kicked off our second season here on PBS back in 2005, we can think of no better way to celebrate the new year and the King Holiday than by paying a visit to Coretta Scott King at Atlanta’s iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church. We traveled to Atlanta for a very special program with Mrs. King taped in front of a packed audience at the church and broadcast on the King Holiday that year.
What we did not know and could not know was that this unforgettable conversation with Coretta Scott King would be one of her last. Mrs. King, it’s nice to have you on the program. Thanks for sitting to talk to us.
Coretta Scott King: Thank you for coming to have a chat.
Tavis: I’m glad to be here. I don’t know how we could start our conversation without recognizing, first of all, that we sit now in this historic place. I was saying to this audience before you walked in that I’ve had the chance to get to know you and I’m honored to call myself a friend of yours.
In as many times we’ve talked over the years, we’ve never had a chance to talk in this place. So let’s start by talking about what it means for you these many years later when you walk into Ebenezer.
King: Well, certainly I have many, many memories of being in this sanctuary from singing in the choir to listening to Martin preach eloquent sermons. And many of those sermons that people know about were preached from this very spot here, the “Drum Major Instinct,” for instance, in which he talked about how he wanted to be remembered, “Knock at Midnight,” “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” and so many others, and all of the wonderful people who visited this church over years and spoke here.
But the wonderful membership who gave us so much love and support because there was always something in our lives that we needed to have support for.
Tavis: Everybody talks about King and nonviolence. Everybody talks about it. I wonder, though, whether or not you think in the world we live today whether or not his philosophy would work today in the way that it worked during his time.
Tavis: You still believe that?
King: Absolutely. It will work today, 2,000 years from now, 5,000, yes, absolutely [applause]. I think if people really read Martin Luther King, Jr., then they would begin to understand what he really represented. The philosophy that he developed, of course, he was greatly influenced by Gandhi and Jesus Christ.
First of all, he said “I got my inspiration and motivation from Jesus and my techniques from Gandhi.” So, yes, nonviolence is a method that transforms, first of all, the individual once you understand it and embrace it. It begins with you and, if you can, about transforming individuals so that they love unconditionally.
Tavis: There are a lot of folk, though, who would say, Mrs. King, though, that Dr. King never heard of Osama bin Laden and that a nonviolent philosophy in a world where you have people who are hell-bent on doing the kinds of things that Al Qaeda is purported to have done, that that philosophy just wouldn’t fit.
King: If Martin’s philosophy had been embraced and lived out in Iraq and other places, we wouldn’t have bin Ladens [applause].
Tavis: So it’s easy to say that after the fact, but much more difficult to institute that kind of love on the front side.
King: Well, it’s never easy because the process of nonviolence is one that takes time and those of us who’ve suffered, who’ve been persecuted over the years, would like to see things change, you know, overnight. And Martin used to say, you know, I’d like for it to come in the morning, you know.
But the fact is that there is a process that you have to follow. But the fact is that, if you can imagine and you can visualize a situation where young children learn this philosophy at an early age and they go through school.
For instance, my vision for the King Center was to start with preschool kids and we did, teaching them at that level Kingian philosophy and nonviolence at their level, and take them through elementary school. We developed curriculum materials for elementary, secondary school and high school and then college. We had a program for college students.
Once they get to that stage and they have careers of their own, they are bound to be different kind of people because they’ll have a different value system. You know, we talk about freedom, we talk about love, we talk about justice.
But these are things that we have to practice and we have to see an example. Thank God we have the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. People need role models. They need to see examples of people in peoples’ lives and that’s why it’s so important not just to commemorate his life, but to study and try to live by the principles of that life [applause].
Tavis: Let me gearshift back because I’m fascinated by the life of Dr. King, but I’m also fascinated by the life of one Coretta Scott King. I don’t want you to shift too much in that seat, but I want to talk about you for just a second here.
They say that behind every good man there’s a good woman [applause] or, as my granddad says all the time, “Behind every good man, there’s a good woman reminding you I knew you when you didn’t have nothing.” [Laugh] I’m not married as yet, Mrs. King, so I don’t know which one is true.
Here’s what I do know. What I do know is that, without Coretta Scott King, there would not have been a Martin Luther King, Jr. in the way that we know him. Now since I mentioned, I’m kind of reminded of a good story I heard once about Bill and Hillary Clinton when they returned to Little Rock, Arkansas after he’d been elected president.
They went back to Arkansas and the president had a favorite Mustang he used to love to drive, but he couldn’t drive it, of course, once he became president. Secret Service wouldn’t let him do that. So he went back home to Little Rock and he wanted to drive his car one day, so he and Hillary got in the Mustang and Secret Service followed them down the street as they drove through Little Rock.
Pulled into a gas station to get some gas and there was an old guy who had gone to high school with Bill and Hillary and there he was pumping gas and had gone to high school with Bill and Hillary. Bill says, “See, Hillary? Look what would have happened if you’d married him.” Hillary said, “No, Bill, if I’d married him, he would have been the president.” [Laugh] [Applause]
I raise that – and this calls for some immodesty on your part, I recognize – but I raise that because I know that you were there for Dr. King in a way that we will never know, ever appreciate.
I’ve talked to a lot of Dr. King’s lieutenants and disciples and they will tell you in private conversations that, because Dr. King was human and not divine – although we think he was divine, he was just a man, an extraordinary man, but a man – and he would get depressed from time to time and disappointed about all kinds of things relative to the movement.
Tell me what you would say to him, what your conversations were like in those moments when I know or assume that he would come and talk to you and say Coretta this, Coretta that. Tell me about those moments when we didn’t see him giving a great speech in this pulpit.
King: Yes, there were many times when my husband felt depressed and was disappointed, you know, that the way in which people behaved, even responded to him, especially in the early days. But, you know, I always tried to think of positive things to say to him and things that would be uplifting and things that I thought were true because I think I knew him better than anyone else.
I mean, you know, to say that, I think I did because I spent more time with him in his adult years than anybody else, even his parents. Martin wanted to be right. First of all, he committed himself to be a servant of God and humankind and he was totally committed.
I mean, you know, when you have someone who is totally committed to serving God, following his conscience, what he felt was the right thing for him to do, when he was accused of something that he was not guilty of, it bothered him because he tried so hard to be right. And I think that those were the times when I would see him get depressed. Let me give an example of something that was very real.
King: When we left Montgomery, we were being investigated for our taxes and they had accused him of falsifying his taxes. And, of course, Martin was very careful about making sure that he dotted all the i’s, crossed all the t’s and he said, “Well, they’re not gonna find anything.”
But they decided the day that we moved to Atlanta to – when he got to Atlanta, they had alerted from Alabama the law enforcement people here, so he was arrested. So I couldn’t understand why he was arrested the first day he got back to Atlanta. This is his home.
Tavis: [Laugh] Yeah.
King: And for hours, I did not know and that was what it was. They had accused him of perjury and, you know, that’s a very serious crime. And when he realized that this was what had happened, what he did was pay whatever the amount was. It seems like it was something like $1500. It was not a lot of money. In that day, it was a pretty good sum of money, but it was not a lot of money. But he said, “I don’t have time to get lawyers and go to court, so I’ll just pay this even though I don’t owe it.”
They said that, by paying it, it was an admission of guilt, so he got very depressed, extremely depressed, and he said, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to prove that I didn’t steal that money.” I said, “But, Martin, you know you didn’t steal it. You just have to go on. People will eventually know.”
Ralph Bunche, the late Ralph Bunche, who was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the first African American and who was the Under-Secretary of the United Nations, said to him, “Martin, it’s the state of Alabama’s word against yours. Now who do you think people will believe?”
Tavis: [Laugh] I wonder – I want to be respectful of you as I always am, but I want to ask this question, so I’m gonna find a way to ask this question.
There’ve been any number of comedians – we all watch comedians on television. We’ve all seen any number of comedians step to the stage and in various acts tell the joke about how they can’t understand how Coretta Scott King would not get remarried after Martin King because how do you follow up Martin King?
I mean, after Martin Luther King, Jr., who you gonna get marry? Who you gonna get with, you know, after Dr. King? Where do you go? What do you do after Dr. King? But on a serious note, I wonder why and whether or not it was a conscious decision for you to not remarry after all these years because…
King: Well, let me just say, why aren’t you married [laugh]?
Tavis: That’s a good question [applause]. Mrs. King…
King: You do not have to answer.
Tavis: I thought we were friends.
King: You don’t have to answer that.
Tavis: I thought we were friends.
King: You don’t have to answer that [laugh]. But let me just say that what people would not realize, and I can understand that, I married Martin Luther King, Jr. whom I learned to love. It wasn’t love at first sight, but because he was such an extraordinary human being and our values were so similar and our outlooks were so much alike, you know, we made a good couple. We were very compatible. So as I got to know him, you know, I had more and more respect for him.
When we decided to get married, it was like marrying the man that I loved, but as the cause began to – as we were thrust into the forefront of the cause, it was my cause too from the very beginning because I had been an activist in college and was involved in the peace movement and the civil human rights struggle back then at Antioch College.
And so I married not only the man I loved, but I married the cause as well. I could not have continued after he was no long here if I hadn’t had that kind of commitment.
I always knew that I was called to do something. I didn’t know what, but I finally rationalized after I met Martin and it took a lot of praying to discover this, that this was probably what God had called me to do, to marry him. And we didn’t know what was going to happen, but when the movement began to unfold, it was very clear to me.
It was a moment of truth when I realized that that’s why we came to Montgomery and that’s what my whole life had led to, the path that I had followed from Marion, Alabama to Lincoln High School to Antioch College to the New England Conservatory in Boston where I met Martin.
Tavis: So in that process, though, you never felt like you were putting your own life – if you felt like that was your work, then I assume then you never felt like you were putting your life on hold.
King: Never, never, because when the house was bombed – a few days before the house was bombed…
Tavis: In Montgomery.
King: In Montgomery, there was a caller who said that they were going to tell Martin, if he didn’t leave town in three days, they were gonna bomb his house and kiss his wife and baby. When the bomb hit, you know, I thought, well, me too. You know, this is not about Martin. It’s about me because I was in the house with the baby, with Yolanda, my oldest child. And so I had to do some serious soul-searching at that moment because I realized that I too could be killed. So I had to prepare myself as much as possible.
You know, it’s not easy, but so I came to that conclusion that, you know, if I had to give my life for the cause, I would be willing to do it as well. So when Martin was no longer, you know, it was like I will do whatever I can, God, to continue in my own way. I don’t have Martin Luther King, Jr.’s abilities and skills, but I do have skills that you have given me and I’ll use those to the best of my ability, and I just need to know the direction.
And it took a while for me to get the direction and I really felt that it finally came through as being the King Center, to take not only just helping, but I had to get in there and lead it myself and it was my vision and whatever it took. My children were my first priority. One of them is here today, Elder Bernice King down front [applause].
Tavis: I want to ask you about how you balanced being a mother and being there for Martin Luther King, Jr. at the same time, but I want to ask you a question before we go further about why I’m not married. I know you told me I didn’t have to answer, but there’s a very simple answer.
I’m looking for a Coretta Scott King [laugh]. When I find one, I’ll get married. Anyway, that answers that question [laugh]. Now that that’s cleared up, my momma’s watching, Mrs. King.
King: Let us all pray that he’ll find what he wants [laugh].
Tavis: My momma’s doing that every day, praying every day that that will happen. Tell me how you balanced being a mother and all the fear and trepidation that came with, as you mentioned a moment ago, being in harm’s way because you were married to this man. How’d you balance being there for him and, at the same time, being a mother?
King: Well, it was tough, I have to admit. But you think when you make that commitment and you know what is most important – and all the children are important – but, you know, the movement had an urgency about it, so sometimes maybe I had to deal with that urgency. The kids have urgencies too. You know, you have to have help. You can’t do it by yourself, so I tried to do as much as I could as a mother individually, but I had to travel.
I had to be away from the kids, but I left them with my parents, with a babysitter, or his parents, the best possible people that I could find. People think I’m crazy running around the country behind this man, but they do not understand. They do not know what I think and what it really is like. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be here.
Now this was 1965 and I don’t ever want to have to deal with myself on the fact that he asked me to do something and I didn’t do it. So I was there. I mean, almost like impossible thing, but I just had to work them out. Of course, he never understood what happened. He didn’t know how it got done [laugh].
Tavis: He just knew you got there.
King: He just knew I got there [laugh].
Tavis: I could go on and on. Let me close with this question. I know that you don’t do politics. I’m not gonna ask you a political question as such. But I wonder what you think, given the world that we live today with all the political and social and cultural and economic chaos that we see around us, what do you think Dr. King could most inject in the public debate that is missing right now?
What would he inject in this debate that would make us feel hopeful and feel better about the future that we’re not hearing currently?
King: Well, let me just say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to do what he did. He was a moral voice, a moral force in our society. I think that’s probably what is missing most is no person has the stature now, that has the moral authority to speak and people listen. Now they didn’t always listen to him, but we know that, after the fact, America has listened and they understood.
So many people said he was wrong when he came out against the Vietnam War. All of the leadership, including Black and white, turned against him, but a year after he spoke, the whole nation reversed itself on the policy toward Vietnam. I’m not saying that he’s a saint, I mean, nothing like that.
But the reality is that God used him as an instrument to bring about all these phenomenal changes in 13 years and four months, all the changes that took place in our society and impacted around the world. And even the democracy that came to South Africa was impacted by this philosophy.
Nelson Mandela sat in a South African prison for 27 years. He was nonviolent. He negotiated his way out of jail. His honor and suffering of 27 years in a South African prison is really ultimately what brought about the freedom of South Africa. That is nonviolence.
So we don’t have that moral authority and I know that it just doesn’t happen. People have to allow themselves to be used by God and Martin committed himself totally to God’s will and purpose and God is always waiting for someone who is willing to do that.
Tavis: Try as I did to get Mrs. King to open up about her own life after the death of her husband, it is simply hard to fathom the burden that Coretta Scott King carried every day of her life following the tragic events of April 4, 1968.
But what an honor and a truly unforgettable moment for all of us on this program back then to spend time with Mrs. King at the church that served as the beating heartbeat of the civil rights movement.
Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.