The real Coretta Scott King, and the one Jonathan Majors imagines

The real Coretta Scott King, and the one Jonathan Majors imagines

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How does your body react to the name Coretta Scott King? Does your chest swell with pride and admiration? Does your head bow, perhaps subconsciously, in reverence? After all, she married, and helped make, Martin Luther King Jr. Her name may as well be sacred.

Which is why when the actor Jonathan Majors, who was found guilty of harassment and assault late last year, repeatedly invoked Coretta Scott King, the collective church said “no ma’am.” It was like taking her name in vain, ducking under the cover of righteousness that “Coretta Scott King” implies.

You hated to hear it, right? When I first encountered the audio recording released during Majors’s trial last month, when the former Marvel Cinematic Universe star advised his then-girlfriend to be more like Coretta Scott King, my head bowed not in reverence but in revulsion.

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“Coretta Scott King, do you know who that is? That’s Martin Luther King’s wife,” Majors told Grace Jabbari, whom he was later convicted of assaulting. “… The woman that supports me — that I support — needs to be a great woman and make sacrifices.”

Majors didn’t stop there. In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week, the actor repeated the allusion. When asked why he would drag Coretta into this, Majors said he was trying to make “an analogy” about whom he was trying to be. Then, when asked about his headline-making relationship with actress Meagan Good, Majors stretched his imagined parallel even further.

“She’s an angel. She’s held me down like a Coretta,” he said.

At this point, my hands reacted, involuntarily shooing away the TV screen, like my grandmother did when something was too ridiculous to exist with her in the same room.

Then my brain trudged to the table (because why do we have to do this): Although Majors’s framing of Coretta as both archetype and stereotype may have been crazy-making, it was also familiar. It’s what we often do with history, distorting size and meaning to fit our needs. But it’s women, Black women especially, who end up in supporting roles. A “great man” — as Majors referred to himself in an audio recording of an argument he had with Jabbari — doesn’t leave screen time for much else.

“Whew chile,” said Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s studies at Ohio State University, describing her reaction to Majors’s ABC interview. What Lindsey found most disturbing was the idea that Coretta Scott King was “something that could be possessed.”

“Coretta is so much more than the symbolic mother of the civil rights movement,” Lindsey said. To put it in pop culture parlance, Mrs. King, Lindsey said, “isn’t some kind of civil rights-era ride-or-die chick.”

That’s why hearing “a Coretta” is so grating. At the heart of it is how women, Black women especially, are miniaturized to fit into someone’s back pocket, deployed only when a man’s skin needs saving. Because who is Majors even talking about? A Coretta? The Coretta? The one he appears to have in mind — the subservient spouse, the woman behind the man — doesn’t have much in common with the actual human being. Coretta Scott King was far more than a passenger on her husband’s trip through history.

“My mother wasn’t a prop,” Bernice King, their daughter, said on social media last week in an apparent response to Majors (though she never mentioned the actor by name). “She was a peace advocate before she met my father and was instrumental in him speaking out against the Vietnam War. Please understand…my mama was a force.”

Coretta’s life as an activist began before she met Martin in Boston in 1952. She picked cotton at age 10 to help her family. When she was 15, white supremacists burned down the family home. Her mother stressed education and independence. In college, she joined the NAACP and was active in progressive politics and the peace movement. She was pursuing a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music when she met a doctoral student nearly two years her junior.

“She didn’t just become a person when she meets Martin Luther King. She was raised in a family that showed her how important she was and she carried that forward,” said Anna Malaika Tubbs, a scholar and the author of the book “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.”

“We cast these very patriarchal notions on women of the past and especially do so with Black women. We assume they existed in the background, but that’s a completely incorrect representation of who they were,” Tubbs said.

It’s no secret that Coretta sacrificed much for the movement and for her husband. But she was more than the widow in a black-and-white photo. After her husband’s death, Coretta continued not just his work, but also hers. Yes, she founded the King Center in Atlanta and spent about 15 years advocating for the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Yet she had a political agenda of her own. She was a vocal advocate of LGBTQ+ rights starting in the 1980s. In 1985, she was arrested outside of the South African Embassy protesting apartheid. And lest anyone think it was her husband’s death that galvanized her own activism, Coretta was showing up at peace protests against the Vietnam War years before Martin broke his own silence in his famous antiwar speech at Riverside Church in 1967.

“There are so many times where she is pushing him, she is challenging him,” Lindsey said. “You name a human rights issue or a civil rights issue of the 20th century and chances are Coretta Scott King was there — and, more importantly, she was most likely there before her husband.”

So how did we get to Majors’s “a Coretta” moment? In which she was cast not as a leader in her own right but as shorthand for unquestioning spousal support? Are there now two Corettas we have to contend with?

“I don’t believe that. I never did. There’s Coretta because of how the media did her. We all attached her to someone else. It was never, ‘Coretta Scott King did something.’ That’s us; that’s not her,” said Barbara Reynolds, who was a close friend of Coretta Scott King’s.

“She just knew who she was. So this other Coretta they have in their heads, that’s a figment of their imagination,” said Reynolds, who co-wrote King’s posthumous memoir, “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” before adding: “Because even Dr. King couldn’t make her be subservient.”

In holding a skewed image of Coretta Scott King in amber, Majors may have been doing himself a disservice. But Coretta’s isn’t the only legacy that history has blurred. Take Rosa Parks, who continued her social activism into the 1980s. “She’s still on that bus,” Lindsey said. Or Harriet Tubman. Betty Shabazz. Shirley Chisholm. Maxine Waters. Michelle Obama. And on. Will we ever be able to see these women as whole, or will there always be easier versions to overshadow them?

Coretta recognized it herself. “There is a Mrs. King. There is also Coretta,” is how she began her memoir, in which she tried to give the full picture. “How one became detached from the other remains a mystery to me.”

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