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Desert Rose details Coretta Scott King's upbringing in a family of proud, land-owning African Americans with a profound devotion to the ideals of social equality and the values of education, as well as her later role as her husband's most trusted confidant and advisor. Coretta Scott King—noted author, human rights activist, and wife and partner of famed Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr.—grew up in the rural Alabama Black Belt with her older sister, Edythe Scott Bagley. Bagley ...
Desert Rose details Coretta Scott King's upbringing in a family of proud, land-owning African Americans with a profound devotion to the ideals of social equality and the values of education, as well as her later role as her husband's most trusted confidant and advisor. Coretta Scott King—noted author, human rights activist, and wife and partner of famed Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr.—grew up in the rural Alabama Black Belt with her older sister, Edythe Scott Bagley. Bagley chronicles the sisters’ early education together at the Crossroads School and later at the progressive Lincoln School in Marion. She describes Coretta’s burgeoning talent for singing and her devotion to musical studies, and the sisters’ experiences matriculating at Antioch College, an all-white college far from the rural South. Bagley provides vivid insights into Coretta’s early passion for racial and economic justice, which lead to her involvement in the Peace Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As Coretta’s older sister, Edythe shared in almost all of Coretta’s many trials and tribulations. Desert Rose charts Coretta’s hesitance about her romance with Martin Luther King and the prospect of having to sacrifice her dream of a career in music to become a minister’s wife. Ultimately, Coretta chose to utilize her artistic gifts and singing voice for the Movement through the development and performance of Freedom Concerts. This book also charts Coretta’s own commitment and dedication, in the years that followed King’s death, to the causes of international civil rights, the antiapartheid movement, and the establishment of the King Center in Atlanta and the national King Holiday. Coretta’s devotion to activism, motherhood, and the movement led by her husband, and her courageous assumption of the legacy left in the wake of King’s untimely assassination, are wonderfully detailed in this intimate biography.
“Coretta Scott King, like so many women during the Civil Rights Movement, has never gotten her just due other than being Mrs. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But her work and leadership was just as instrumental in advancing the cause of Black folk. Desert Rose puts the light on Coretta and her family, and allows us to revel in the courageous work of a remarkable family, and definitely a strong and fearless woman like Coretta Scott King.”--- Roland S. Martin, nationally syndicated columnist and author of Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America
“It is difficult to think of a person more qualified to write a biography of Coretta Scott King than her older sister, Edythe S. Bagley. An accomplished scholar and writer, Bagley creates in Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King, a portrait not just of her younger sister who grew up to play a large role in the nation’s history, but of the family that produced and nurtured Coretta and sent her proudly out into the world to assume her rightful place. As scholars and historians begin to do the necessary work on the life of Mrs. King and her unique individual contributions to progressive movements in this country--both before and after the death of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--they will find in Desert Rose a loving portrait, filled with anecdotes, family stories, historical footnotes, and memories only a sister could provide. For those who want a closer look at an extraordinary woman, Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King will provide that intimate glance with great affection, deep understanding, and amazing grace.”--- Pearl Cleage, author of Till You Hear From Me and the play A Song for Coretta
Sweat trickled down Willis's back as he slowly made his way between the chest-high rows of cotton. Picking first on the left, then on the right, he slipped his fingers between the coarse, prickly leaves and plucked cotton bolls from the stalks, then stuffed them into a sack that hung from his shoulder. Using both hands, he worked in rhythmic motion, picking and stuffing and turning and picking, keeping his hands constantly moving back and forth across his body as he twisted from side to side.
Almost three times the size of Willis's young body, the picking sack was made of heavy canvas and trailed behind him on the ground. Already it was more than half full. The weight of it pulled down on the strap across his shoulder, making it dig into his collarbone. He paused long enough to shrug the strap over to a different spot, then set his hands moving once again. Stopping, even for a moment, was dangerous. Pickers got the whip for working too slowly.
By mid-morning, the hot September sun had turned the field into a steaming cauldron that stretched for half a mile, from the willow trees by Macy's Pond all the way to Jemison Road. Farther north, in places like Virginia and Maryland, cooler weather made the mornings pleasant. In Maine and New Hampshire, leaves already were turning red, yellow, and golden brown. Up there, the nights were cold enough for a fire. But where Willis worked, on Scott's Plantation, deep in the heart of Alabama, the branches on the pecan trees were still heavy and thick with dark green foliage. Red maples growing by the pasture along Dry Creek still cast a dark shade. First frost was months away.
In the fall of 1862, Willis was all of fourteen years old, but already he was an experienced hand. He had started his first job almost as soon as he learned to walk. He filled the wood box by the stove in the kitchen at the big house, drew water from the well for the house servants, and fed the chickens. When he was six, Mr. Scott's overseer sent Willis to the field to carry the water bucket. All day he followed slowly behind the pickers with the bucket and a gourd ladle, ready to offer them a drink. The next spring, they handed him a hoe. He had been working the cotton harvest since he was big enough to drag a sack.
That September, war raged across much of the South. Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee saw heavy fighting. Almost every week, folks arrived in Marion, having fled the war in wagons loaded with trunks and chests and wardrobes. Children and servants rode on top. Mules and livestock were tethered behind. Isolated and of little strategic value, Alabama had escaped the devastation many other states had suffered. Perry County, where Willis lived, would not see Union troops for another two years.
As Willis picked his way across the cotton field that September morning, events were happening that would one day change his life. A thousand miles away in Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln sat at his desk on the second floor of the White House. Before him was a sheet of paper, and on it was the draft of a preliminary proclamation declaring his intention to bring slavery to an end. If Lincoln had his way, emancipation would come the following January to all states that remained in rebellion against the Union. That morning, he read the draft aloud for his cabinet.
News of Lincoln's decision spread rapidly through the North and sparked a heated debate. Down South, word of what he had done moved much slower but was met with an equally vigorous reaction. By the time Willis heard about it, the cotton was picked and sold, and he was chopping firewood, butchering hogs, and tending the smokehouse. Even then, after word got around and everyone was talking about it, not much in his life changed. At Scott's Plantation, the daily routine continued to follow the age-old ritual of work, sleep, and work some more—just as it had for years.
The harsh and cruel reality of a slave-based economy had held the South in its grip for over two hundred years and would continue to do so for another hundred. While enslaved, blacks were not allowed to own property, enter into contracts, or travel freely without permission. Illiteracy was strictly enforced with laws that prohibited anyone from teaching slaves how to read. Deference to whites was the order of the day and would remain so until the twentieth century was well over half gone. Blacks were obliged to give a white person whatever they wanted or to suffer the consequences for failing to do so. Any deviation was met with a reprimand, often delivered at the end of a whip, a club, or worse.
Emancipation did not reach Alabama until 1865, and then only in stages. On April 2 of that year, Federal troops under General James H. Wilson's command fought their way to Selma, several miles east of Perry County. Ten days later, Montgomery surrendered and on May 4, Confederate general Richard Taylor surrendered all of Alabama to Union control. With the war effectively ended and Federal troops occupying the major cities and towns, only pockets of slavery remained in the state, most of them confined to rural areas where a few owners stubbornly clung to dreams and hopes of a return to the past. Finally, on December 2, 1865, the Alabama legislature formally ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, officially ending the practice of slavery.
No longer bound to his former master, Willis faced the daunting prospect of life on his own. In 1865, making a living was not a foregone conclusion, especially for a black man in a county still dominated by white landowners. Conditions were much the same in other states throughout the Deep South. Faced with that, many former slaves journeyed north, supposing metropolitan areas like New York and Boston offered a better life. Others went west in a determined bid to explore the full reach of their newly granted liberty. Some simply took to the road, wandering from town to town, sleeping in the woods, and enjoying the luxury of unfettered travel. And some, like Willis, settled down right where they had always lived.
Though white landowners—the same men who just months before had owned Willis and thousands like him—still controlled the means of production, they faced the same uncertainty as their former slaves. With hundreds of thousands of acres to farm and no one to tend it, plantation owners needed labor to work their land. Former slaves, though now free, still needed a way to earn a living. To solve their dilemma, landowners divided their plantations into individual farms and rented them out to their former slaves in a sharecropping arrangement. Men and women who in the previous year had worked the land beneath the heavy hand of slavery found themselves working that same land as tenants, paying their rent with a portion of the crop they produced. It was still slavery only this time the chains were economic, not iron and steel.
As was the case with most former slaves, Willis entered freedom without a surname. Slaves were known only by their first name. To make his way in life, Willis needed a family name. In one of the many paradoxes that defined the South, he chose the name of his former owner, Scott, and became known as Willis Scott.
After the end of the war, things moved rapidly in Willis Scott's life. By 1880, he occupied a farm at the northern end of Perry County near the community of Heiberger, and was married to a woman named Delia. Together, they had a family of nine children. One of their children was a son named Jefferson. He was our grandfather. Jeff Scott's son Obie was our father.
Many who survived the plantation life were simply lost in the years that followed, swallowed up by the passage of time and the obscurity of American society. Others drifted listlessly from one thing to the next. Some learned to cope with the system, applying the survival skills they had developed on the plantation to the challenges of living in the segregated South. And some found a way to prosper. We were blessed with industrious and courageous parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. They not only endured, but they did so without compromising their sense of dignity and worth. Their indomitable sense of purpose and their deep desire for justice was carefully passed from generation to generation until it came to rest in full measure on my sister, Coretta.
By temperament, Coretta was most like her grandmother, Cora McLaughlin Scott, for whom she was named. Grandmother Scott passed away before Coretta and I were born, but we heard plenty of stories about her from family and friends. Through their memories, she was a real and vital presence in our lives.
Constantly working and always active, Grandmother Scott was an eternal optimist with a compulsion for orderliness. She operated her household in a systematic and methodical manner, and she believed in following a schedule. As a matter of routine, she awakened her family at four in the morning and served breakfast by candlelight. Afterward, the beds were promptly made, the dishes washed, and the house put in order. Most days, she and her older children went to the field shortly after sunrise.
With her day structured around a schedule, she maintained discipline and order by the imposition of rules. One she most consistently enforced was a prohibition against returning to bed before nighttime, even on rainy days. Grandmother Scott had a place for everything and everything was in its place, including her children.
Driven to succeed, she was determined that those in her care would have a better life than the one she lived. Key to that effort was ownership of her own home, a goal she and Grandfather Scott achieved before her untimely death at the age of forty-two. She spent her short lifetime bearing children, working in the fields, tending to the many chores of the farm, and maintaining a home.
In contrast to Grandmother Scott's obsessive and disciplined nature, our grandfather, Jeff Scott, was gentle, affable, and levelheaded. Whereas Grandmother was frank and outspoken, Grandfather Scott was careful and cautious. An inwardly strong man, he had learned well the art of weighing his words and using them in tactfully constructed sentences. It was a skill essential for survival in a segregated society that forced black men to adopt a dual persona: the strong, determined men of ambition they knew themselves to be and the subservient, demurring ones that whites of that day expected.
A farmer by occupation, Grandfather Scott owned three hundred acres and lived well for his time. Cultivated and harvested by members of his large and expansive family, that farm provided a dependable, solid life. He was the father of thirteen children by his first wife, Cora, and ten by his second wife, the former Fannie Burroughs.
Though hampered from his youth by a stuttering problem, he never allowed that speech impediment to intimidate him or deter him from public leadership roles. Instead, he regularly sought and accepted prominent positions in the church and community. Like his father before him, Grandfather Scott was determined to give his children and grandchildren a better life and did not shrink from using his influence for that purpose. He attended Mt. Tabor AME Zion Church where he was chairman of the board of trustees, preacher's steward, Sunday school superintendent, and church secretary, positions he sometimes held simultaneously. Devoted and honest, he was a natural leader who discharged his duties and responsibilities with a degree of unselfish service few could match.
Beyond the local church, Grandfather Scott was district Sunday school superintendent, responsible for Sunday school programs in all churches within our region. In addition, he was chairman of the board of trustees of Crossroads School, the elementary school that served three African American communities in our section of the county.
Though Grandfather Scott was concerned about the needs of the mind and spirit, he understood the importance of temporal issues as well. After the Civil War, benevolent societies sprang up among African American communities all over the South. Known in our area as Rising Star Societies, their purpose was to care for the sick and bury the dead. In effect, they were poor people's insurance companies. For as little as ten cents a month, a member received a small weekly benefit during illness and a modest funeral upon death. In Perry County, almost every church was associated with one of those societies. The one in our community was called the Mt. Tabor rising star society. Grandfather Scott was president of that society as well as the Perry County Association of Rising Star Societies. He helped found the Rising Star Association in nearby Hale County and served as its president, too.
Because of his many positions, Grandfather Scott was one of the most widely traveled black men in our community. At a time when many blacks struggled with illiteracy and cultural isolation, Grandfather Scott attended church conferences in distant places and was a strong lay leader on the national level. To keep up with affairs beyond our county, he subscribed to the Birmingham Age-Herald, the daily evening paper from Birmingham, which he received every afternoon. Most mornings, he sat near a window and read the previous evening's paper before going out on his farm to work.
One day in the spring of 1941, Grandfather Scott was busy hauling fertilizer to the farm in preparation for the planting season. Near the outskirts of Marion, he lost control of his pickup truck, ran off the road, and struck a large tree. The force of the crash caused severe head and chest injuries. A passerby found him slumped over the steering wheel unconscious. He died en route to the hospital.
All who had known Jeff Scott remembered him as a most remarkable man. He lived to be sixty-eight years old and resided not far from our home. I have fond memories of him. Coretta did, too, and she often remembered him in conversation. From his example, she acquired an interest in the broader issues of the day and a cosmopolitan perspective that guided her throughout her life.
* * *
From our mother's side of the family, Coretta inherited a unique mix of captivating beauty and strong character. Grandmother McMurry, who was Molly Smith before she married, was already fifty years old by the time Coretta and I were old enough to remember her. A gracious and kind lady, it was obvious even then that as a younger woman she had enjoyed a nearly perfect figure. Of African Ameri can and Irish lineage, she had a delicate beauty and was the quintessential lady—always patient, soft, and deferential.
Like the typical wife and homemaker of her generation, Grandmother McMurry mastered the domestic arts of sewing, cooking, childcare, gardening, and animal husbandry. When we knew her, she always had at least two lovely cats. With eight children to care for, making clothes and quilts was a necessity, but she continued to sew long after her children were grown. She used needlework as an outlet for her wonderful sense of creativity.
When she was not sewing or cooking, Grandmother McMurry worked in the yard. She had a passion for plants, especially flowering ones, and maintained a home filled inside and out with all varieties. Though she knew almost nothing of scientific gardening methods, the plants in and around her house responded to her touch and flourished under the same love and care that she gave us. Plants were so much a part of her life that in our memories she was often standing beside a flowering hydrangea, a row of zinnias, or a bed of phlox.
Martin McMurry, our grandfather, was the antithesis of his lovely and graceful wife. He was stern and unyielding; children feared him, and adults stood in awe of him. He was a man who exuded strength and authority simply by the manner in which he carried himself. Neighbors and strangers alike knew from his determined gait that he had a clear sense of purpose.
Born in 1862, Grandfather McMurry was the son of a slave woman and a white slaveholder. His mother was part African American and part Native American. His father, a white man, never acknowledged our grandfather in any way. Because of his rich racial blend, he had the skin color, hair texture, and facial features of a Caucasian, but those who expected to find in him a man aspiring to be white often found themselves the recipient of his more tempestuous side. Martin McMurry might have been light skinned, but he had the heart and soul of a proud black man. He and his wife taught their children, all of whom were light skinned, to love the race of their black ancestors. For members of the McMurry family, race was less a matter of genetics and more one of intentional, emotional cultural identification.
Throughout his life, Grandfather McMurry did his best to remain self- sufficient. An industrious and diligent man, he worked his 280-acre farm with only the help of his family. He could do everything from digging a well to making molasses. Innovative and untiring, he raised some of every kind of plant and animal that grew in the South. From goats to guinea fowl, scuppernongs to sugar cane, his farm was always full of surprises. He even grew his own tobacco, a rarity in Alabama. Of all his traits, Grandfather McMurry was best known as a wise and shrewd man. He had a reputation for being the most astute man in the community. White and black people alike sought his counsel. With an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a keen intuition, he had a unique understanding of the problems faced by his generation.
Excerpted from DESERT ROSE by Edythe Scott Bagley Joe Hilley Copyright © 2012 by Coretta Scott King Foundation, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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