In 1952, Coretta Scott, a southern farmer’s daughter and graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music, met a young playboy and Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. King, described as “the most eligible bachelor in town”, was a first-year doctoral student in Boston University’s systematic theology program. He was also the product of Atlanta’s famous, thriving, proud, and insulated Black middle class. Scott and King had received glowing recommendations of one another through a mutual friend. Eventually, the young playboy called her for a date, and they met for an early afternoon lunch the next day. Over sandwiches, they conversed on race, politics, social justice, future goals, and music.
Although Scott left feeling skeptical about this smooth-talking progeny of the Black elite, King was so taken with Scott that he all but proposed, saying “we ought to get married someday.” As they began to spend more time together, two things about their new relationship would crystallize: this farmer’s daughter would influence King’s activist worldview, and a commitment to social justice would be the heart of their budding romance.
In fact, one might argue Scott, during the early days of their courtship, was far more engaged and progressive on the issues than King.
Scott has pointed out, on numerous occasions, that what attracted her to King wasn’t so much his looks — his 5’7 stature left much to be desired, the aspiring soloist recalled — or catching sight of the shiny new green Chevrolet he pulled up to her apartment in, but his humanity, confidence, ambition, and bearing. These qualities, she admitted to her sister, reminded her of their father, Obadiah Scott, a dignified man who had persevered professionally despite pushback from a brutal white South.
“When he talked, he just radiated so much charm” Scott remembered of her first encounter with King. “He became much better looking as he talked.”
And what did the two lovers talk about? Likely life growing up in the South in their respective black quarters and how each planned to use the education they’d acquired in the non-segregated, but no less racist North to tackle “the Negro problem.” Their dates consisted not only of dinners, concerts, and necking, but sharp exchanges on race and segregation. Oftentimes, these debates occurred in the context of The Dialectical Society, a small campus club of BU students, led by King.
By the time young King met Scott, he had thoroughly absorbed the philosophical insight of great thinkers of both Western European and African American scholastic stock. From Martin Luther King, Sr. (his father) and Morehouse president Benjamin Mays, to theologians Edgar Brightman and Harold DeWolf, King crafted a black-based social gospel mode of thinking that would become a function of his activism.
Social activism was not peripheral to the burgeoning romance between Scott and King. It was the center.
But there is one other person who should be added to this distinguished list — his future wife, who, before meeting King, was an activist in her own right. In fact, one might argue Scott, during the early days of their courtship, was far more engaged and progressive on the issues than King. Not only was she a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but she’d also campaigned for progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace, as a member of the Young Progressives. And when King expressed his growing dismay with capitalism, the economic bedrock of Atlanta’s black middle class, Scott immediately sent him a copy of Edward Bellamy’s acclaimed novel Looking Backward. Inscribed on the front page was a small lovenote she’d written requesting his opinion of the book.
The fact that Scott hailed from a less privileged background, but managed to attend a prestigious, artsy university also affected King. She knew the depths of lost and struggle, recounting how white arsonists had burned her father’s home and sawmill to the ground for violating Jim Crow etiquette. Such memories would guide her decision to embrace controversial human rights struggles during and after her marriage to King, including protesting the Vietnam War — several years before her famous husband began speaking out — and supporting homosexual marriage against the tide of orthodox Christian opinion.
Coretta Scott was indispensable to the intellectual development and political maturity of Martin Luther King, Jr. But, looking back at their courtship, something else is also readily apparent — social activism was not peripheral to the burgeoning romance between Scott and King. It was the center. It was the very pulse of a deeply shared love and passion and commitment that, according to King’s parents, during one visit while King and Scott were graduate students, radiated in the couple’s eyes.
While King was torn between pursuing social activist work as an academic or clergyperson, Scott had optioned to make a contribution to the black struggle through music and the classroom. She never failed, when possible, to put her voice to this particular use, even as her career took a reluctant backseat to her husband’s.
As graduate school came to a close and the years waned on, as King — newly minted leader of the MIA and SCLC — gradually assumed the role of symbol of the modern civil rights movement and nonviolent resistance, as he traveled thousands of miles across the country with his entourage for days on end pitching the need for a national commitment to black liberation, news would come of the quick liaisons with other women and more long-standing affairs. There’s even that tense moment when Scott received a package in the mail from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, said to contain a recording of King in bed with a mistress.
Through it all, Coretta maintained that what she shared with King was above scandal and reproach, even the relationships King had with other women. Whether or not this belief holds does not invalidate the hurt she must have felt while trying to keep her integrity and family together amid these revelations.
This year, as we remember and celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., as millennial activists struggle to balance intimate relationships and community work, and define new-fashioned love in this era, it might be instructive to glance back with a radical critical eye at those early days of two Black intellectuals who got to know one another and “stood in love” — as bell hooks would say — over the potential of helping each other manifest a shared social activist vision.
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