NEAL CONAN, host:
This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Shortly after her husband's assassination, Coretta Scott King said, I am more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality. Her accomplishments include the national King Holiday, and the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for the Study of Nonviolent Change.
Ms. CORETTA SCOTT KING (Activist): We have inherited a sacred responsibility to history, and a legacy born of tragedy. This is not something that we wanted, but it was not something that we could walk away from.
CONAN: This hour, a look back at the life and legacy of Coretta Scott King, who died overnight. We'll hear from her friend, Maya Angelou, and from biographer Taylor Branch, among others, plus your calls, as we remember Coretta Scott King.
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CONAN: This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
As the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King was a lieutenant, advisor, and the mother of his four children. As the widow of the great civil rights leader, she took up the torch of human rights, founded the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, campaigned to establish her husband's birthday as a national holiday, fought to protect his image, and came to be regarded as the matriarch of the civil rights movement. Earlier today, the King family announced that Coretta Scott King died in bed at a holistic health center in Mexico, just south of San Diego, overnight. She was 78 years old.
In the course of this hour, we'll speak with biographers and friends and colleagues about who she was, what she did, and how we should remember Coretta Scott King. Later in the program we'll welcome your memories and your questions about her life and legacy.
We begin here in Studio 3A with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, and Juan, thanks very much for coming in.
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: You've covered the civil rights movement for many years and I know you've met and talked with Mrs. King many times. We tend to forget, we look at her biography and see that she studied voice and went on to, in fact, the New England Conservatory of Music, but we tend to forget there that she was also an activist at a young age, as well.
WILLIAMS: Very much so, and someone who was, you know, standing side by side with a young Martin Luther King. People forget how young they were when they went to Montgomery, Alabama. He was then just 25 years old, when he was given the opportunity to lead the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Coretta was even younger, and, you know, forced into a situation that really was tumultuous.
Their first child, Yolanda, was born just days before the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. And then, you know, it's a year later, in fact, that Mrs. King is home with the baby when the porch on their home is bombed while Dr. King is giving a speech downtown. So, it's at that moment, I think, that Dr. King felt it was appropriate to try to protect his wife, and she spent a lot of time in Atlanta, but not on the road with him. He was being protective of her, but all along she was quite supportive.
She would have freedom concerts, playing on her musical talents that you mentioned, Neal, to raise money for the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group that Dr. King started. So, all along, a tremendous supporter, and of course, an icon. I mean, literally, when she showed up people were in awe, people parted the way, she was royalty in this country.
CONAN: As a teenager, she grew up in Perry County, in Alabama, as a teenager, her father was becoming successful with a small trucking business, and she suffered at that time also, another bombing.
WILLIAMS: Well, what happened was that her father, Obediah, was the first black man in Marion, Alabama, to own a truck, and trying to start a business. And then he owned a sawmill, and again, the idea of a black man in this period, you know, we're talking way before Brown decision, way before Montgomery bus boycott, we're talking old South, and we're talking deep south. He was an extraordinary man, a landowner, and now a business owner, and, the sawmill was burned, destroyed, by whites, in their anger, in their jealousy over his success.
Nonetheless, his status and his appreciation for not only ownership but education is what he invested in Coretta Scott, his daughter, I mean, his princess, as he sent her off to Antioch and then to the New England Conservatory of Music, in New England, which is where she met Martin Luther King.
CONAN: So, coming from that background, yes, Martin Luther King was a particular lightning rod, yes, she knew that these were turbulent times, yes, she had to live with death threats to him, and by extension, to her and to her children.
CONAN: This couldn't have come as a complete shock either.
WILLIAMS: No, and I think in part she saw it as part of, you know, the cross to bear, if you will, part of being a supporter, probably Dr. King's number one supporter. She was the one who kept things normal for Dr. King as much as possible, and you know, it was a very short, difficult life. Remember, he's dead by the time he's 39 and leaves her as a single mother, and then she also has to care for those elderly parents in Alabama. And she was very much a person centered on family, centered on those who knew her best, very private person, very dignified. I think sometimes people would mistake that for arrogance or condescension, but in fact what it was was that she was a very tender soul, and not given to exposing herself, especially after dealing with so much death.
It's worth mentioning it's not just Dr. King's death, but of course, Dr. King's brother died shortly thereafter, and even her mother-in-law was killed by gunfire in a church. She had to deal with all of that and continue to raise those four kids. And of course, also deal with the fact that she was this public persona, and try to establish the King Center, got involved in politics at times, not always with success, difficulty with the people who then took over the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was not a big supporter, they wanted her to use her fundraising prowess to help build the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but she opted to build the King Center, because she felt that would do a better job of continuing her husband's legacy.
CONAN: And at the same time she's also asked to carry this enormous moral burden. I don't think any of us can begin to understand all of this, and she had young children. Was there any, ever any indication that she just wanted to say at some point, you know maybe I should just back away from this and take a less public role.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think that in some ways her feeling was that Dr. King had not been properly honored. You know, he didn't die with any wealth, didn't leave her any wealth, and so she was protective of the idea of her children first and foremost, but secondly, his name and legacy. Now this becomes somewhat controversial, because she wanted control of everything that had to do with Dr. King, his speeches, his images, you know, any interviews that he had done, and she would protect them so tightly it was almost, you know, obsessive, and then, you know, demand fees and the like, and it vaulted her into a lot of controversy that I don't think she wanted, I don't think she appreciated, but she felt she had to support that center.
She'd gone out and raised the money for it, and now, at the time of her death, much of the center is in disrepair. I think they say they're about 11 million dollars in debt.
And then there's the whole divide within the family as to whether or not the Center should be sold to the U.S. government. Bernice, her daughter and Mrs. King were of a mind that it should remain with the family under the family's control so that it can remain an independent institution, but other members, other children, notably Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, are of a mind that, you know, it's time to move on. The Center was never well managed by anyone's measure, but it was always seen as really Mrs. King's kingdom, if you will. That it was her creation and people needed to honor her and her wishes with regard to it.
CONAN: Let's bring in Taylor Branch to the conversation. Now Taylor Branch chronicled the life of Martin Luther King and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in his trilogy, America in the King Years, the third and most recent volume is At Canaan's Edge. It covers the time from 1965 to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Taylor Branch joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta, and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Author): Thank you, nice to be here.
CONAN: I wonder in part the controversy that Juan was just talking about, turning over the King Center to the federal government, part of her problems with the federal government go back to her relations with the FBI, and its eavesdropping on Martin Luther King, well, are we sure when it began?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, we know when the wiretap order was signed, in October, 1963, but there was surveillance and eavesdropping well before that. And of course it continued right up until his death. I don't know how much that is an issue in her relationship with the federal government now. It has more to do with the control of that institution and the control of the paper. But it certainly is a reminder, that issue is a reminder that government surveillance can be a very contemporary issue because it was every bit as big a deal back then as it is now with regard to terrorism in Iraq.
CONAN: She came to regard the FBI's, well, this was harassment from her point of view, pure and simple.
Mr. BRANCH: Well, there's no question that it was, and some of it was disgraceful and criminal, and it was also deeply personal. It was not merely to vindicate the FBI's claim that it needed to be able to eavesdrop on anything, although J. Edgar Hoover said that right out in the open, to the degree that our knowledge is reduced, our effectiveness is reduced. He demanded the royal right to know anything.
But what it exposed was how human the people in the government were because there was a deep personal animus there. It wasn't all a sense of duty and of course Mrs. King said that that's one of the reasons that you need checks and balances on this kind of thing in government is because you need to hold public servants accountable to public duty and not their own personal vendettas.
CONAN: And of course the FBI smears, well, they didn't stop at the death of Dr. King.
Mr. BRANCH: No, sadly they didn't and that's another indication of how vindictive it was. They kept, when they knew who had killed Dr. King they planted other rumors that, you know, people within the movement may have been involved, and personal people might have been involved. So yes it extended even beyond the grave.
CONAN: I wonder, Coretta Scott King, how did she cope with this in your mind?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, you know I think part of Coretta's contribution, I'd like to know what Juan thinks of this, I mean, she was a model of dignity, which some people mistook for a kind of regality and queenliness, as a defense mechanism, at a time when that sort of dignity was vital for the people in the movement who were shorn of dignity.
Everyday we have to remember that on their wedding night in Alabama, they had no place to go in segregated Alabama. And they had to spend their wedding night in the back of a funeral home with coffins because there was no place for the young Martin Luther King and Coretta in the segregated South to go. There were no motels or hotels.
So her dignity, I think, was of a very, very important resource. In the church, she was called the First Lady of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. She was later called the first lady of civil rights, and I do think that it was a refuge for a lot of people.
I think her other great original contribution to the movement besides just her private support was that she was a pioneer and applying nonviolence outside of traditional race issues particularly in issues of war and peace. She was a member of Women's Strive for Peace long before Dr. King made any speeches against the Vietnam War. And you know I'm struck by some of the images from that period. One I just put in the book of her being pressed against the White House gates trying to deliver a peace petition by herself.
CONAN: We'll have more with Taylor Branch and Juan Williams when we return from a short break. We'll also speak with writer Maya Angelou, a friend of Coretta Scott King. This is Special Coverage from NPR News.
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CONAN: From NPR News in Washington this is Special Coverage; I'm Neil Conan.
We're remembering the life of Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., who died earlier today at the age of 78. In a few moments, we'll hear from author and poet Maya Angelou. Still with us in Studio 3A is NPR Senior News Correspondent Juan Williams, also with us Taylor Branch, author of America in the King Years, a trilogy on the life of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. He's with us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio.
And we do know that Mrs. King opposed a memorial to be established at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which of course was the site where her husband was assassinated. Here she is though speaking at the museum's dedication in 1991.
Ms. KING: I must confess that when I first heard of plans to create this memorial, I was skeptical. The Lorraine Motel, after all, represented a personal tragedy for my family and me, as well as for the nation. But I'd like to commend you who have transformed the Lorraine Motel into something very, very positive.
CONAN: Coretta Scott King. Juan Williams, why did she change her mind?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think initially she would have viewed it as a threat to the King Center and she didn't want there to be any delution of attention here, you know with any distraction. She wants people to come to the King Center. The King Center is the biggest tourist attraction in Atlanta despite its disrepair at the moment. As you heard, at the start of this show it's where President Bush went to lay the wreath. People come there from all over the world.
One of the arguments about Mrs. King and that center is that there's not enough interaction with people on real issues of nonviolence and it's not an opportunity for teaching and learning. You know an exchange of ideas it's more of a tribute, you know just a memorial and I think...
CONAN: A shrine.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, hoped that there would be much more. And that place was something Taylor was talking about which is why people would call her, her Widowship, or royalty, or view her as someone who could be pretentious. I think that Taylor's right. You look back at the way people dressed in that era, especially black leaders and you look back at the pictures. Everybody is dressed as if they're going to a formal occasion, suit and tie. This is not a, you know no Dashikis, no Dungarees, nothing like that. And I think it has a lot to do with the need to say right from the start, I'm to be treated a certain way. I am worthy of dignity, and you're speaking to yourself.
I mean, one of King's, you know, most touching quotes is about changing the mindset of black Americans so that they have a sense of themselves as worthy, and I think part of that had to do with the idea that, Coretta Scott King also made it a point of her education, her training as a classical singer, people said, you know, she was trained for the opera stage, but it became a political stage and so she was, some said, a diva on that stage.
Mr. BRANCH: I agree. I think the quote that you just played from Coretta is quite poignant because not only did she see the museum in Memphis as a potential threat to the King Center, it was painful to her in other ways. The Lorraine Motel was kind of a flop house and it was undignified and it went against all the grain of everything he just mentioned about dignity that she was trying to uphold, and I think her apology, and her saying that she had changed her mind was a tribute to really what they did with that museum.
It is a beautiful museum and it really changed that whole area around the Lorraine Motel, which had really degenerated so badly that, I think, Coretta was afraid it would remind people of, you know, just how bad things had come, but she had the grace to say they had triumphed over it.
CONAN: Hm. She never remarried, dedicated herself to her husband's legacy. Of course, founded the Kind Center for Non Violent Social Change, campaigned for his birthday to become the national holiday, but, Taylor Branch, I wonder did she think that there was work left to be done?
Mr. BRANCH: Oh, I think she did. She stayed, you know, I think that's the great war of, within her, is that, to some degree, she's withdrawn, but I think she was very much committed to nonviolence. She insisted on putting that in the mission and in the title of the Center. She's one of the ones, she saw clearly the applications of nonviolence beyond traditional race issues to issues of war and peace and even to nonviolence of the spirit with regard to gay people, and she was the member of the family most out front there on the gay rights movement and there's division within the family in the next generation.
Some of them are in the other direction. So, I think Coretta was very, very sturdy in her understanding of how central nonviolence was to, not only the spiritual, but the Democratic mission of her husband's movement.
CONAN: Taylor Branch, thanks very much for being with us today. Appreciate your time.
Mr. BRANCH: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Taylor Branch is the author of, most recently, At Canaan's Edge, America in the King Years, 1965 to 1968. He was with us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta.
Joining us now is poet and author Maya Angelou, a close friend of Coretta Scott King. Thanks very much for being with us. I'm so sorry for your loss.
Ms. MAYA ANGELOU (Poet and Author): Thank you very much.
CONAN: Three years ago, Mrs. King spoke with Tavis Smiley here on NPR. I'd like to play a clip of that interview for you. We'll get it up in just a moment.
Ms. ANGELOU: Very good.
Ms. KING: I never thought of it as a sacrifice during the time I was involved. I thought of it as a commitment. I had a very strong and deep commitment to the struggle. Starting in my college days I was an activist and I was not only a peace activist I was a political activist. I went to my first political convention in 1948 as a student delegate, and so when Montgomery started it was just a natural for me to feel very much involved even though my first child had just been born and I could not be as physically active, but I was very much involved spiritually and making sure that I kept up with everything, reading the newspapers and so on.
I married Martin Luther King, Jr. because I came to love him after I met him, but I also married the cause that we both shared in and the commitment, and so that made is possible, when he was no longer here, for me to continue because I understood what Martin Luther King stood for and I felt that Martin himself was a noble example of what human beings could achieve, and I was hoping that we could raise up younger generations of people who would follow in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s methods, principles of non violence, and methods, to bring about social change and to create for the beloved community that he envisioned.
CONAN: Coretta Scott King speaking with Tavis Smiley. Maya Angelou, does that sound like the Coretta Scott King you knew?
Ms. ANGELOU: Absolutely, and that was the woman.
CONAN: Married the cause as well?
Ms. ANGELOU: Absolutely. You see, one of the elements, natural and monumental elements of Coretta Scott King was her courage. It takes incredible courage for an artist to say, I will lay aside that gift given to me by God and try to make it shine in another area. Coretta, to have been accepted as a student where she was accepted meant that she had wonderful talent. And so she wanted to sing and she could play the piano and she might have become our next Marian Anderson or early versions of Jessie Norman and Ms. Graves, but when she met Martin Luther King and fell in love with him and his cause, she said "well, I put my energies in this direction" and that's incredible.
I mean, that takes a lot of courage and a lot of insight and a lot of foresight and stick-to-it-iveness, but you know, I have to say, that I heard some of your interview with Mr. Branch.
Ms. ANGELOU: And Mr. Branch's books have within them a number of untruths and I take issue with the book and I must say since I'm on the same platform...
Ms. ANGELOU: ...that I would like to say this and I will say it anywhere, I know that in Taylor Branch's book there is a suggestion that Martin Luther King was thinking of divorcing Coretta Scott King. Now, the thought, first off, the very idea, the word divorce, didn't have a place in his vocabulary, but also he knew the strength of the woman and the beauty of the woman he had, and he loved her and they loved each other and you know, it's as interesting to me that, when we last had our big, big talks, probably about eight months ago...
Ms. ANGELOU: ...Coretta Scott King and I called each other children sisters. We chose to be sisters and we were, and I would go to her or she would come to me. We'd take off, we went to South Africa together, we went to the Caribbean together, and we would start to talk and, and of course, I am known to like Scotch and she doesn't, so she would drink lemonade. And we'd talk all night and, but whenever Martin King's name came up, no matter what we were talking about, her voice always dropped about three whole tones. So maybe we were talking like this and she was saying, and then sister, here's what happened, the women, and then Martin came.
Ms. ANGELOU: As, I mean, Dr. King was killed on my birthday, April 4th in 1968, and all those years since, save for a couple, we've always called each other on that day, sent each other a card or a flower. I have, until eight months ago, she was in love with Martin Luther King, and he was in love with her.
CONAN: Eight months ago, of course, was her heart attack and stroke.
Ms. ANGELOU: I'm sorry?
CONAN: Was eight months ago, you were referring to her heart attack and stroke?
Ms. ANGELOU: This was before the stroke and heart attack.
CONAN: Yes. Inevitably those of us who weren't there see her as this icon standing next to her husband at the Nobel Peace Prize when he is making the speech, when he is receiving the Peace Prize, and those other occasions when she is standing by her man, or remembering her man. How do you remember her today?
Ms. ANGELOU: Oh, I remember her as a wonderful sister and a brilliant, brilliant wife, and a great mother, and a leader. To be all those things, she, I think of her and I think of Betty Shabazz and Winnie Mandela and Myrlie Evers. I can say without fear or favor that without Coretta Scott King, the King Center would not exist. Without Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela and all the other men, I include Malcolm and, without the women who were so firm and so loving and so strong and so loyal, without them, those men may have become footnotes in the pages of history.
CONAN: They certainly did not and great tribute, of course, to the women who helped them do what they did.
Ms. ANGELOU: Exactly.
CONAN: Maya Angelou, thank you so much for being with us today.
Ms. ANGELOU: Thank you very much and good evening.
CONAN: Maya Angelou spoke with us from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News.
Joining us now from New York City is Cory Booker. He's a Democratic candidate for mayor in Newark, New Jersey. Cory Booker, nice to speak with you again.
Mr. CORY BOOKER (Mayoral Candidate, Democrat, Newark, New Jersey): Thank you for having me on.
CONAN: We talked earlier this month and you talked about how the Civil Rights Movement affected your decision to get into politics and how the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. is very much alive in places like Newark, New Jersey. Tell us a little bit more about that. Tell us a little bit more about the place that Coretta Scott King holds in places like Newark, New Jersey, today.
Mr. BOOKER: Well, you know, she's a powerful woman. I had a chance to speak with her in May at an event that Oprah Winfrey had where she was honoring the greatest African American female legends from her lifetime. And she's such a regal person. She has so much dignity. When you approach her, you almost feel like you're talking to royalty from our country, but then as soon as she meets your eye, she really makes you feel like you're part of a family. And in many senses, that's sort of what is was most inspiring to me because she made me feel like I was a part of her story, a part of an evolving legacy.
So she, she was such an important symbol, and not only a symbol, but also substance. Still yearning, still pushing, still imploring people like myself to be out there in the movement, to be active, and reminding us. Probably the best lesson I could draw from her is that struggle in a sense is a neverending process. Freedom is never completely won. You have to continue the fight, continue the effort to push and make it real.
CONAN: Does her name resonate with young people today?
Mr. BOOKER: I think it definitely does. You know, I'm part of the, what's called the hip-hop generation, and she is sort of memorialized in our hearts and our minds, and very much a part of conversations and ideas that we are trying to still make manifest, so she's somebody that though she is now absent with us in the body, she's still present with us with her spirit.
CONAN: That role of inspiration, you're not the only one to have cited that, and, and I wonder now that she's gone, now that the direct connection to her husband is gone, how much of a loss is that?
Mr. BOOKER: It's a tragic loss and today, we must mourn and I think for years to come, we must mourn this loss in a living connection to not only the man of Martin Luther King, but the dream and the vision. So it is a tremendous loss. But maybe, the real thing I try to take away from this sad day is, the only way to in any way mitigate that loss is by trying to make real what her life was about, what she was struggling for, and what we do.
CONAN: Cory Booker, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. BOOKER: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Cory Booker is a Democratic candidate for mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He joins us today on the telephone from New York City.
And Juan Williams, let me ask you also about that. The role of inspiration that she provided to so many people, not just Cory Booker.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think what she stood for is sort of continuing the King legacy, and this is a very difficult sort of discussion, Neal, because in some ways, Mrs. King would assert herself as an intellect and as a leader, as apart from her husband, especially after her husband's death, the decision not to support the continuing work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference but to create the King Center and the King Center as her own domain.
And you know, there were people in lots of other movements who tried to claim Mrs. King and bring her in so she could be in the front and center as an icon to serve their purposes, and oftentimes that led to friction within the movement because she didn't want to be anybody's puppet, she wanted to be her own person and she was educated, capable. She said people would look beyond her, looking for another Moses, ignoring the fact that she stood there as a very capable person.
But I think, and sometimes it was part of the male-dominated hierarchy in the Civil Rights Movement, people had difficulty seeing her as that leader, to gain that respect, but you know, she went on. She was someone who sparked controversy. She didn't support Jesse Jackson when he ran for president. She had difficulty in terms of trying to intervene in the South African anti-apartheid movement, people here didn't want her to have a lead role. So in many cases, her attempts to establish herself met resistance.
CONAN: Juan Williams, thanks so much for being with us today. We know you've got to run. Appreciate your time.
WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams here with us in studio 3-A. When we come back from a short break, we want to hear your thoughts about Coretta Scott King. 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the, this is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today we remember the life and legacy of Coretta Scott King. For the rest of this hour, we'd like to hear from you. Our number is 800-989-8255 or you can send us email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a timeline of key events in Coretta Scott King's life, and from our audio archives, you can hear King talk about the civil rights struggle and her marriage. You can find all that at our Web site,NPR.org.
Joining us now is Ron Walters, distinguished leadership scholar and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park. He joins us on the line from his office there, and Professor Walters, good to speak with you today.
Professor RON WALTERS (Distinguished Leadership Scholar and Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: I wonder, what, what message should we take away today, do you think, from the life and the work of Coretta Scott King?
Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think we should take two things away. One is that here was another life that has come to a close following Rosa Parks, and that the generation that was so important in challenging racism in America in the 1960s, and as a result establishing a bedrock of laws that all Americans today benefit from, that generation is passing off the scene. And that opens the question of sort of what that legacy is going to be.
I think that it returns us to the scene of struggle and it ought to return us to the set of values that we were trying to, to implement. And they are positive fundamental American values, and to an extent, I think we should then commiserate that that path that was forged by Coretta Scott King and her husband and millions of people, black, white, otherwise, we are on the road now toward serious retrogression. I think that's one of the problems that we have with understanding and in analyzing this legacy, but I think we have to be honest about where we are in history today.
CONAN: Hm. You're talking about, of course, grand and important issues. We also remember a woman today who, back in 1960, Coretta Scott King helped win her husband's release from a Georgia prison, he was, he was there on a motor violation, with the help of then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Tell us about that.
Prof. WALTERS: Well, that's right. I mean, this was a very important event because Louis Martin came up with the idea that, and he was an assistant to Kennedy, Louis Martin, of course, associated with Sengstacke Newspapers, Chicago defender in Chicago, a very wily veteran who had been approached by Kennedy to be an assistant in his run in an outreach to the black community. So Louis Martin came up with this idea that Kennedy should call King in prison and so protect him from some of the things he was likely to experience, and therefore make that public.
Prof. WALTERS: He did it, and it was public, and Daddy King, who was important in his own right then said, I've got a bag of votes and I'm going to give them to John Kennedy. And that was critical because, as you know, Kennedy barely won that election.
CONAN: By a squeak.
Prof. WALTERS: That's right. And most people who are looking at it think that he won it really by, down to the black vote. Blacks in the previous election in 1956 had voted in the majority for Dwight Eisenhower, had went temporarily back to their Republican roots. But coming back to the Democratic party to support Kennedy really was important to him.
CONAN: More recently, Mrs. King had obviously been having health problems, these past few years, but she remained very active in the issues of the day.
Prof. WALTERS: Yes, she did, and I think, you know, when you look around, you would see her. And it wasn't just domestic issues. It was international issues. I accompanied her and Martin King III to Zimbabwe at one point. She had been invited there by the president, Robert Mugabe. This was some 15 years ago.
Prof. WALTERS: So, yes, she was known as a mother of the Civil Rights Movement. She held herself with the dignity of that status and position. She enjoined in a number of the decisions that were made among the black leadership, and she was very much a player in a lot of the events that took place in the community.
CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation, if you have a memory of Coretta Scott King that you'd like to share or questions about her life, our number is 800-989-8255. Again the email address is email@example.com. And, let's get a caller up. This is Randy. Randy's calling us from Selma, Alabama.
RANDY (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
RANDY: Good. I just wanted to say that losing Mrs. King was like losing a member of the family. She's thought very highly of here in Selma, Alabama, and throughout the black belt of Alabama, and she'll be greatly missed. And we appreciate NPR doing the kind of coverage that you are about her life.
CONAN: Well, thanks for that, but Randy, what in particular about her life will you remember her most for?
RANDY: Well, I was fortunate in that I've been in her presence several times. I think just the fact that, not only did she continue to do the work that Dr. King had initiated, but she also had a feeling for it, you know, she really meant many of the projects that she worked on, she really worked very hard towards the nonviolent approach and towards improving race relations in general throughout the nation. And really, throughout the world.
CONAN: Randy, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
CONAN: And, I wonder, Ron Walters, something that Randy just said, she really meant it. There was an aspect of sincerity, and I suspect that if there had been any aspect of non-sincerity, people like Randy would have detected it.
Prof. WALTERS: Yes, I think that's true, and particularly with respect to his comment about nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance was of course not universally popular in the black community. But people respected Dr. King, and therefore they respected this philosophy. Especially since they had seen the fruits of that philosophy in the South.
She carried that philosophy forward, and yes, she meant it. Because she came out of it, she was schooled in it, and if I think she had any one regret, it would have been that she wanted very much to turn the Martin Luther King Center into an apparatus, a training vehicle, for the next generation of nonviolent social activists. It never quite got there, and I think that, as I said, she was working on that, but that would have been, I think, the greatest tribute to the King legacy.
CONAN: She went, I think in 1958 it was, again looking at materials on her life earlier today, with her husband to India to study the techniques of Gandhi.
Prof. WALTERS: Yes, she did. And as I said, that's one of the reasons why I think she was so committed to it. Because she understood it. She understood it the way King did, they were there and the teachings of Gandhi, his massive examples of the use of nonviolence in attaining Indian independence from the British and the techniques that he used. And so, yes, she was part of the group that went to school with this technique and came away as convinced as ever that it would work in the South.
I think the importance of it has to do with the fact that, when you look, there's a line between this group and Booker T. Washington in the 19th Century, in the South in particular. In order to work in the South, and to be important and effective as an activist in the South, one had to use techniques that were important in mobilizing people. But at the same time, in showing the illegitimacy of violence, and not feeding into those people who would perpetrate violence, and showing if they perpetrated violence then they were on the wrong side of history. That was the impact of the nonviolent technique in the South. And it wasn't as respected as, I should say, in the ghettos and the inner cities of the North and west as it was in that region.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Nicole, Nicole calling us from Wichita, in Kansas.
NICOLE (Caller): Hi. Yes, I wanted to say that I got to meet Coretta Scott King in 1989. She spoke at my brother's high school graduation here in Wichita. And, at the time I was 15 years old and absolutely in awe to meet the wife of my greatest hero. And, I remember afterwards we went back to speak with her and she was like royalty to me. I felt like I should bow to her, because she was such a great woman. And I remember she had some lipstick on her chin and my mom licked a Kleenex and wiped her chin, and at the time I was mortified that she would do that to Coretta Scott King.
But she was so gracious and so sweet, and just made you feel like you're on the same level with her, and not like she was trying to, you know, like that's how she was. She really felt as if, that you were on the same level with her. And I just, that memory is just so great to me and I am sad today that she's no longer with us.
Prof. WALTERS: Well, let me say, as someone who was born in Wichita, and grew up there and went to school there, that it was very important for people like Coretta Scott King to come into the Midwest. Because the black community, of course, in Wichita when I grew up was not very large, we're talking 5,000 people, not a great community today in terms of its size. So it never was very large, but it had tremendous challenges.
And we were, I think, fortunate in Wichita that we had good white allies. I'm not meaning by that to be deceptive, but the fact is, that there were people who believed in social justice and civil rights who were not black, in the city, and who formed an alliance with us. And that expanded our numbers, and so we were able then to have a foundation for people like Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr., and others when they came. And we also had a powerful NAACP chapter in that city, and of course, we're going to honor an individual who was the head of it for many years and was very active, Attorney Chester Lewis, this fall.
CONAN: Nicole, thanks very much for the call.
NICOLE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking today about the life and the legacy of Coretta Scott King who died overnight at a hospice in Mexico. That was announced by the King family earlier today. If you'd like to join the conversation give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email, that address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Ron Walters, Distinguished Leadership Scholar and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, in College Park. This is special coverage, from NPR News.
And here's an email we got from Adrian in Portland, Oregon.
My father was a Poobah in the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at UC Davis. He had invited Mrs. King to speak at their annual Founder's Day brunch. After she'd spoken, my parents told me that I needed to go up to her and shake her hand. I remember being so nervous. This was Martin Luther King's widow. She looked at me with those warm brown eyes of hers, upon which was written all her pain and struggle, and then said something that shocked me. Her words were, Oh my goodness, how you've grown. I haven't seen you since Martin held you. I didn't know, because my parents never told us just how involved they'd been.
It was the only time we ever had a conversation. For many years after that, particularly after I came out as a lesbian, I thought to write her and thank her for her support of gay rights. I never got around to it, now she'll never know, but I will say it now at any rate, thank you Coretta, both for that moment back in 1981 when you made me feel 100 feet tall, and for later, keeping consistent with the dream and coming down on the side of gay rights, on principle.
Again, that's an email from Adrian, from Portland.
Prof. WALTERS: Well, let me just say that that is consistent with her, one of her last positions, and that was that the question of gays and lesbians and equal rights was in fact a civil rights issue. And she said that just, I think, two weeks ago. The whole question of gay rights, gay marriage in particular, has been coming out of the 19, well coming out of the 2004 election, another burning issue in the black community.
CONAN: And this stance is not non-controversial.
Prof. WALTERS: That's right. And so, she made her feelings felt on it.
CONAN: Let's talk with Esther. Esther's calling us from Michigan.
ESTHER (Caller): Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
ESTHER: I just wanted to say, I'm a member of generation x, or the hip hop generation, whatever. For me, I've never met Coretta Scott King, but she was indeed an icon. And if, you know, people like her, now that she's gone and Rosa Park's is gone, that's the end of an era. I mean, these were the women, and these people having the survived into this age, they're what made the civil rights movement real for me.
And now, it's like, if they're all gone, going on, and I wonder, because there's so much left of the struggle that has not been accomplished, and I wonder what can I do at this point? And what will my generation and my children do at some point without these people? Like how can we carry on, to make Martin Luther King's dream, to make Coretta's dream, which she worked for, for so many years without him, to come true? And I'm just hoping that we can live up to what they've given us and that we can continue.
Prof. WALTERS: Well I have a very simple and direct answer to that question. And it is that I think, if you want to really honor the Coretta Scott Kings and the Rosa Parkses, I think that you have a responsibility to take the civil rights movement in to the places where you think that it is needed.
I've been asked so many times, you know, where is the civil rights movement? And people ask that question as if they expect it to still be in the street. Well, Coretta Scott King and her husband and many of us tried to struggle in the 1960s and 1970s so that people would have a wider band of equal opportunity. But, since we don't have it, it means that they must carry that legacy forward in their own lives, and in their own situations. So that's what I would suggest.
We need one final point about that. Today we're about, in the estimation of many, to have Judge Samuel Alito elevated to the Supreme Court. It means that we could lose the Supreme Court as an institution of social justice for our generation. It seems to me that people who understand that should be active, should've been active this weekend, should be active from now on. Because it tilts the scales of justice, it could tilt the scales of justice tremendously. So there is ample opportunity, I think, to exercise that legacy. And I would say that we have a responsibility to do so.
CONAN: Esther, thanks very much for the call.
ESTHER: Thank you.
CONAN: And Ron Walters, we appreciate your time, as always.
Prof. WALTERS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Ron Walters is Distinguished Leadership Scholar and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, and we reached him today at his office there. Again, stay tuned to NPR News for continuing coverage of the life and legacy of Coretta Scott King. There's a timeline of key events in Coretta Scott King's life, and, from our audio archives, you can hear King talk about the civil rights struggle and her marriage at our website, npr.org.
I'm Neal Conan. We'll leave this program listening to Marian Anderson.
(Soundbite of song "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands")
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