Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2006 / 3 Shevat, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Her kind of majesty | Democracies have their queens, too. They don't wear crowns; they don't need to. Their crown is their presence among us. And when they pass on, it is as though a landmark in time had been erected. A landmark that reminds us to number our own days, and ask if we have been loyal to her majesty.

Such will be the days of mourning for Coretta Scott King, who not only stood by her husband but by her country, by which she meant what it might yet be.

Stood by? No, not just stood by, but walked ahead, holding her husband to his vision, and her country to its. She bid us follow without needing to say a word. Did she ever give a memorable speech in her life? She didn't have to. All she had to do was appear, and the message was delivered. Queens are like that.

Even heroes break, and G-d knows there was more than one time when Martin Luther King or any mortal would break, and would have every reason to ask if it was all worth it. Coretta Scott King's presence supplied the wordless answer: Yes.

And there was many a time when she needed to affirm him. Maybe not in the early years, for her husband was never freer or stronger than when he was behind only physical bars. Just read his letter from the Birmingham jail.

But then came the long years beyond Montgomery and Birmingham, and the losing struggles in the faceless cities of the North. Bull Connor was a snap compared to Hizzoner Richard J. Daley.

The great movement that had galvanized the whole country, black and white together, began to lose traction, and lose direction after the March on Washington and the passage of the great civil rights acts. The Second Reconstruction ground to a halt against barriers far more subtle than those old White and Colored signs down South. The moral authority of the early years began to dissipate, its energies split into a dozen causes du jour . . . .

What was once The Movement splinted into many movements, each with its own gimcrack ideology, and what had been a unifying vision shattered like glass dropped from a great height.

Somewhere in this new wilderness, the mixed multitude that had marched out of Selma into freedom lost its direction even before it lost its leader. Its once singular faith did not so much waver but was just put aside. Politics intervened. The great leader's name was co-opted. Competing doctrines replaced one vision. The Movement became a museum.

But Coretta Scott King never lost faith — in her wandering husband, or in the people now pining for false gods, or in her country as it yet could be. She was the rock. And when the great leader was lost, she remained the touchstone.

Like others before her whose dignity old Death could not shake — like Jacqueline Kennedy in those dark days after the assassination — Coretta King remained the calm center of the swirling storm. She stood fast. Her dignity became the country's. Eyes turned to her naturally. And were never disappointed.

As with other queens and widows, Mrs. King had to fight to hold family and legacy together. What had been a great cause was becoming an industry; what should have been a legacy began to turn into a family feud. She didn't deserve all that, nor would she accept it. A name made great, an ancient sage said, is a name destroyed. Coretta Scott King proved the sage wrong. She kept the name — and its meaning — alive.

Even the news of her death awakens us, and sets the blood to stirring again. Her living presence still speaks, and says: Yes! It can yet be. The dream still lives.

Now she is at peace, they will say. But wasn't she always? Now the mourners will compete for a place at the bier, but nothing they can say will disturb the example she set, and still does. Looking neither to the right nor left, she kept her eye on the mark. Her runner's race is not yet completed. We, black and white together again, shall have to complete it for her.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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