MLK was in love: What a letter to Coretta reveals about how relationships shape our politics
This weekend we celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. (Thank goodness because, even though the year just started, I’m already ready for a holiday.)
Of course I am deeply grateful for Dr. King’s contributions as a visionary, narrator, and leader of social change in this country. His work alongside many other organizers has inspired movements across the globe.
I remember not only his extraordinary life, but also his tragic death at only age 39. Dr. King was killed for not only what he did in concert with others, but for what he represented — a threat to the system of racial hierarchy and the US as an imperialist power.
I’m also reflecting on the fact that we only have this holiday because his wife, Coretta Scott, made it happen. I’ve known for a while that Coretta was a powerhouse in her own right, but this past year I’ve been studying the King papers and let me tell you…
MLK was a man in love.
I know much has been made of his alleged infidelities and do not dismiss this. However, I am not here to get into the details of their marriage as it endured under the unimaginable strains of intense movement work.
All I know is that this is what MLK said in a love letter to Coretta after finishing a book she had sent him:
Darling I miss you so much. In fact, much [too] much for my own good. I never realized that you were such an intimate part of my life. My life without you is like a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere which has been saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter. Can you imagine the frustration that a King without a throne would face? Such would be my frustration if I in my little kinghood could not reign at the throne of Coretta. O excuse my darling. I didn’t mean to go off on such a poetical and romantic flight. But how else can we express the deep emotions of life other than in poetry. Isn’t love [too] ineffable to be grasped by the cold calculating heads of intellect?
By the way (to turn to something more intellectual) I have just completed Bellamy’s Looking Backward. It was both stimulating and fascinating. There can be no doubt about it Bellamy had the insight of a social prophet as well as the fact finding mind of the social scientist. I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas. I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human [systems] it [falls] victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. So I think Bellamy is right in seeing the gradual decline of capitalism.
I don’t know about you, but my mouth was hanging open after I read this.
They had only been dating a few months, but it is clear this man was smitten and he was out to impress. Coretta was not only capturing his eye, but shaking up his mind and influencing his politics.
As I’ve informally studied the Civil Rights Movement over the years, it has become clear that most folks got involved because the people they were dating or hanging out with were involved.
We get organized into the work by the people we know, trust, and love.
In addition to doing direct action, participating in civil disobedience, and facing violence and retribution, activism includes the often invisible work of organizing meetings, documenting decisions, training people and managing tension and conflict.
Movement work is hard, but never done in isolation. While we work with others to move forward strategies and tactics, we also develop our political identities through conversations, debates, and, yes, relationships with those people.
When examining the past, a lot of people I work with wonder what they would have done at the time. They ask, “how would I have responded?” “What would I have said or done?” “What would my roles have been?”
I tend to challenge people to NOT think about what “I” would have done if put in those situations. I say look to your left, to your right and to the last few people you texted, because you probably would have done whatever they were doing.
The question to ask is, “what would we have done?”
Some of MLK’s early radicalization came from a woman he cared deeply about.
This weekend, I’m thinking about how my partner, my family, and my community have influenced me and how they continue to impact the role I have in advancing justice.
I am also reflecting on all the incredible organizers, educators, healers, artists, journalists, librarians, youth activists and elders I’ve built with for more than two decades. Our connections have inspired my analysis and my work — I am forever grateful.
I’m studying the King papers by taking this outstanding free online class offered by Stanford and taught by Dr. Clayborne Carson.
The book Coretta gave Martin was the utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887 by Edward Bellamy.
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Mia Henry is the founder of Freedom Lifted, an education and consulting firm that provides trainings and coaching anchored in social justice leadership.