He picked her up for their first date in his green Chevy.
She wore a light-blue suit under a long black coat.
It was a rainy day in Boston, 1952.
The first thing Coretta Scott noticed about Martin Luther King Jr. was that he was short. Even as he sat behind the wheel of the car, she could tell.
He took her to Sharaf’s Cafeteria on Massachusetts Avenue for lunch, where he began the conversation by complimenting her on her beauty.
Going into the lunch, Coretta has assumed she “had the edge on him” when it came to her commitment to social action, as she’d later recall in an interview. She was pleasantly surprised, she said, to find that King shared her determination to return to the South and fight for change.
King seemed surprised, too, that a music student knew so much about politics. As they talked about the merits of capitalism versus Communism and what it would take to achieve justice for Black people in America, his eyes widened at one of Scott’s comments.
“Oh, I see that you know something other than music,” he said.
“Of course, I didn’t say anything,” Coretta recalled in a recently discovered audio recording, made in 1968 as she worked on her memoir. “I sort of smiled.”
They married the following year.
Last month, Boston unveiled a statue celebrating their love called The Embrace, based on a photograph taken of the couple in 1964, as they hugged after learning that King had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The work depicts four interlocked arms that appear to form a heart, at least when seen from some angles.
In his newsletter, the sculptor, Hank Willis Thomas, says he sought to create not only a monument to the Kings “but a monument to love and the power it holds.”
Not everyone sees it that way. Some say the statue disrespects the Kings by reducing them to body parts. I haven’t seen the work in person. While I congratulate anyone who sets out to celebrate the Kings and the power of love, I would prefer to call attention to a different kind of embrace.
There’s nothing especially revelatory about the embrace depicted by the statue. King learned of the award in a phone call from his wife. Later, they staged a hug for newspaper photographers.
I can think of more meaningful hugs they shared over the years: upon King’s release from jail, for instance, or as they marched through the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, or Chicago. But the embrace that matters most, I think, isn’t a physical one, but something that began with that first lunch at Sharaf’s.
Martin Luther King Jr. was 23 years old, studying for his doctorate at Boston University. Coretta Scott was 24, almost 25, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.
King enjoyed an active social and intellectual life in Boston. He had dated many women, including one of Scott’s classmates at the conservatory. He had dated girls back in his hometown of Atlanta, too, including one to whom he was informally engaged.
But at the end of his first date with Coretta Scott, as he drove her back home, he declared his ambition to marry her. Why? I think it was because she challenged him intellectually in a way that no girlfriend previously had.
In 1952, when she met King, it was Scott who had the stronger resume as an advocate for social change.
“I went to school . . . with a mission,” she told an interviewer. “I didn’t go to school just to get an education to earn a living, but I thought more in terms of the service that I could render . . . As a Negro, I felt somewhat impelled to do something about the situation.”
She was born and raised near Marion, Alabama, and had attended Antioch College in Ohio, a racially integrated hotbed of progressive thinking. At Antioch, she dated a white classmate, joined the school’s NAACP chapter, served on race-relations committees, protested a local barbershop that refused to cut Black people’s hair, challenged a rule that barred Black Antioch students from student teaching in area schools, and traveled with friends to attend the Progressive Party’s national convention in 1948.
King, or M.L. as most of his friends called him at the time, liked to say that he intended to leave Boston, return to the South, and “kill Jim Crow,” but had not yet been a part of any organized protest movement.
Martin “stepped into her space,” as singer and King confidant Harry Belafonte told me in an interview for my forthcoming book, King: A Life. Scott sought to share some of what she had learned as a budding activist. When they started dating, she gave King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a Utopian science-fiction novel that predicted society would achieve equality and widespread prosperity without violent revolution.
When she decided to marry, Scott agreed to sacrifice her career ambitions in support of her husband’s. Yet, at the same time, she edited her marriage vows; she wouldn’t promise to “obey” her husband because that seemed sexist and old-fashioned, she said.
As the civil rights struggle began, Coretta served as more than an adviser to her husband. In 1956, when a dynamite blast rocked the Kings’ home in Montgomery, she rejected pleas from her family to flee with her newborn baby to a safer place, saying Martin needed her. And she didn’t plan to cook.
Neither of them anticipated the way the Montgomery bus boycott would change their lives, but, together, they exhibited a willingness to accept the responsibility that came with leadership. “While my husband was being prepared for the job . . . ” Coretta writes, “I feel that I was being prepared also to be the helpmate . . . I feel very strongly that it was meant to be this way.”
As Martin gained fame, reporters occasionally interviewed and wrote about his spouse. Many of these stories were written by journalists who focused on her housekeeping duties, but Coretta demanded to be heard and appreciated for her own contributions. Repeatedly, she talked about her husband’s biases about the role of women in the home and in the civil rights movement, about how cultural standards of the day limited her opportunities, and about her determination to overcome those obstacles.
“Often, I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner: the wife of Martin . . . which I was proud to be,” she once said. But I was never just a wife . . . I was always more than a label.”
The Kings had four children, and the job of raising them fell almost completely to Coretta. We should appreciate her labor — the child care, the cooking, the suit-pressing, all the necessary and unheralded work she did. We should also appreciate the way she strove to do more, and what she accomplished.
“My husband feels it important that one parent remain at home to give [the children] security,” she told a reporter in Seattle, where she had traveled to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “But I would like to make a more complete witness by marching, and, if necessary, going to jail.”
In 1962, Coretta attended the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Switzerland as a delegate of Women’s Strike for Peace. When her husband won the Nobel Prize in 1964, she announced that the award would obligate them both to speak out more forcefully on world events, including the Vietnam War, which most Americans supported at the time.
In 1965, Martin asked Coretta to speak about Vietnam at an SCLC retreat and to raise the question of whether the organization had a responsibility to formally oppose the war. “I talked about how it would continue to drain resources from education, housing, health, and other badly needed social programs,” she recalled later.
“I said, ‘Why do you think we got the Nobel Prize? It was not just for civil rights . . . Peace and justice are indivisible.’”
Note the word “we.”
In June 1965, Coretta was the only woman to speak at an anti-Vietnam War rally attended by more than 15,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The following year she and Martin moved their children into a squalid Chicago apartment to call attention to substandard and segregated housing conditions in the North.
While all this was going on, the FBI had Martin and his advisers under surveillance. The bureau tapped his home and office phones and placed bugs in some of his hotel rooms. The investigation began as an inquiry into ties to Communist Party insiders and evolved into a campaign to destroy his reputation.
The FBI had produced a tape containing a selection of recordings from Martin’s hotel rooms and mailed it to Atlanta, along with a letter by an unnamed writer who claimed to possess detailed knowledge of Martin’s extramarital sex life. Coretta was the first to open the package.
Even through such an unprecedented ordeal, they maintained their embrace. Their marriage held. Coretta, who died in 2006, always said she believed Martin had remained faithful to her throughout their marriage.
In 1965, a journalist asked Martin if he had taught Coretta about activism. He answered without hesitation: “I think at many points she educated me. I never will forget that first discussion we had when we met.”
Martin Luther King Jr. never forgot it, and neither should we.
I’m no artist. I don’t know how to sculpt a representation of the kind of intellectual and emotional embrace that began at that lunch table in 1952. But I do know that it was an embrace worthy of tribute.
Jonathan Eig is the author of the biography King: A Life, coming May 16 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Send comments to email@example.com.