Her husband grew up in the heart of Auburn Avenue, the center of black America. She grew up on a cotton farm in rural Alabama. That made all the difference. During his childhood, he was surrounded by black pastors, teachers, and entrepreneurs and cocooned in a supportive and extensive family network. She picked cotton in the summer, and her father’s lumber mill was burned to the ground by his white neighbors.
“I often wonder if the movement would have happened if Martin had married someone else,” says Andrew Young, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. as executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Young grew up in the black middle class of New Orleans; his wife, Jean Childs, was born in the same Alabama town where Coretta went to school. “Martin didn’t have things that bad growing up in Atlanta. I didn’t have things that bad in New Orleans,” says Young. “But we married women who grew up in Marion, Alabama. They knew about hard times in small Southern towns. They were motivated to change the world.”
Amazing Grace The King family’s home was bombed. They received death threats. They were wiretapped by the FBI. No one doubted Coretta’s courage and commitment. But her true demonstration of grace under pressure came in the aftermath of Martin’s 1968 assassination, when she took to the global media stage to stress the importance of carrying on his battles against war, poverty, and discrimination—and then took to the streets. She went to Memphis to lead sanitation workers in the march her husband had been scheduled to helm, then returned to Atlanta to walk before 150,000 mourners in a procession behind the mule-drawn wagon carrying his casket.
One Vow She Refused to Make Coretta flummoxed the patriarchal pastor Daddy King by insisting he take the word “obey” out of the ceremony he performed at her wedding to his son—an early indication of her push for women’s rights, a stance that often caused her to butt heads with her husband and the male leaders of SCLC. She served on the boards of both SCLC and the National Organization for Women.
This article originally ran in the May 2011 issue.
Illustration by Marco Ventura