Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King

Sep 4, 2012

“Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King”

Author: Edythe Scott Bagley, With Joe Hilley; Afterword by Bernice A. King

Publisher: The University of Alabama Press

Pages: 318

Price: $34.95 (Cloth)

“Desert Rose” is a sympathetic, personal remembrance of Coretta Scott King by one who knew her best.

It is not academic or highly researched. Others will be doing that. This book is warm, intimate, in a readable plain style, and offers Mrs. King’s story “through the eyes of her sister,” Edythe, a perspective, by definition, no one else can have.

Also, the publishing history of this manuscript tells us this is not a memoir written by an elderly person looking back after six or seven decades, the memories colored by nostalgia or the judgments of history.

Bagley tells us she wrote the book in 1966, ’67, and ’68, at the “insistence” of her sister. Then, “On Thursday April 4, 1968, I put the manuscript in the mail to the publisher. Having finished a long and arduous task, I went home and sat down to relax. Late that afternoon, on a balcony outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.” Coretta was asked to write her own memoir “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. “and this book was “put on hold and then cancelled.”

Now, thanks to the UA Press and Coretta’s daughter, 44 years later, we have it.

Loosely speaking, the memoir is divided into three parts: before and during Coretta’s marriage to Martin and carrying on alone, after his death.

The middle section contains the most familiar material. During their marriage Mrs. King was of necessity the wife of Martin and the mother of four children. She was his chief support and counselor but, perhaps surprisingly to some, had strong opinions and important activities of her own.

Edythe asserts, for example, that on the Vietnam War and Sane Nuclear Policy Coretta was “ahead of Martin on the issue and kept up a consistent presence in the Peace Movement.” Due at least in part to her feelings, Dr. King united the “Civil Rights Movement… with the antiwar protest.”

Coretta had trained extensively to be a serious singer, a soprano, and raised a lot of money for the SCLC with her Freedom Concerts, given in Southern cities like Birmingham, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa, but also in Town Hall in New York City and on a five-city tour up the West Coast, from San Diego to Seattle.

Coretta Scott was born in Crossroads, Alabama, in North Perry County, on April 27, 1927. Mother and father, Bernice and Obie Scott, worked hard and prospered, against long odds. Grandparents on both sides owned their own farms, and Dad was determined to rise still further.

Obie Scott farmed as well as ran a part-time barbering business, assisted often by Bernice, who also drove the school bus for a while. After working some years at a lumberyard, Obie bought a truck for hauling logs and lumber. More than once, white truckers made threats on his life, even stopped him on the road to threaten him with shotguns. He started a taxi business in Greensboro, and established a sawmill in Perry County. There was white resentment and his sawmill was destroyed by arson. Rather than risk having a replacement burned he started a country store and gas station in Marion. Obie Scott lived to sit on the steps of the capitol with his son-in-law at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march.

Coretta Scott came from strong stock indeed.

After attending the Crossroads School, which was a Rosenwald School, Coretta, like her older sister Edythe, moved on to The Lincoln School in Marion which was for her “an oasis in an intellectual desert, a place filled with ideas and stimulation for learning” and then to Antioch College in Ohio, one of six black students. Coretta studied music, even sang on a program with Paul Robeson, and then moved on to The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where she met Martin, then a Ph.D. student at BU. After a brief courtship, they were married on June 18, 1953, in part as she told her sister Edythe, because “Martin reminds me so much of our father.”

The Kings were married for 18 years, through the 382-day Montgomery bus boycott, the strife in Birmingham, having their home bombed, and Dr. King’s exhausting, dangerous work for the Movement. There were periods of discouragement, but also spectacular highs such as the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

After Martin’s death in 1968, the author tells us, Coretta worked as hard as ever, fighting apartheid in South Africa, saving her beloved Marion Lincoln School, organizing the King papers, establishing the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, pushing for the MLK Holiday, and helping establish the Atlanta Children’s Theatre.

Coretta Scott King lived an amazing and productive 38 years after the death of her husband and fully deserves this readable, warm biography by one who loved her.