Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King

After seeing the photograph of the lapel pins in my post, Where Is The Love? Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I received a few texts and emails asking about the one of Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) that says Desert Rose. I am re-printing, here, a review I wrote five years ago (and posted on goodreads.com) of the book, Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King written by her sister, Edythe Scott Bagley (1924-2011).

The lapel pin in the photo is one I purchased in the gift shop at The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change when I was in Atlanta for a family reunion in 2015.

lapel pins of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. (photo by Leslie Reese)

Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott KingDesert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King by Edythe Scott Bagley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was really excited about reading this book because when I was a child learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I would see photographs and documentary footage that often showed his wife by his side, I always wondered about her. She wasn’t one of the men but she was always there, yet, no one ever seemed to make a big deal about her. When she died in 2006 I remember feeling sad, and wanting the world to make the kind of mourning noise for her that I thought they would have had she been Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, or the Queen of England!

newspapers from 2/8/2006 covering funeral services for Coretta Scott King (photo by Leslie Reese)

Now, I hate to say how much this book disappoints me, especially since it was written by Coretta Scott King’s elder sister, Edythe, who actually passed before the book’s publication. It disappoints because it isn’t intimate. I can’t feel the soul of the woman. I can’t feel her interior spirit and intellect, although I can presume it because of the types of work and achievement she gave herself to. I can’t get a grip on her as a sister or a daughter, wife, or mother. The narrative is so politely written that there aren’t even any mouthwatering descriptions of food or travels abroad to evoke the energy of newness, refreshment, or adventure. The fact that Edythe and Coretta were raised to be independent, creative, and scholarly black women in the early part of the 20th century is taken for granted, but could have been contextualized in a more dynamic way to allow the reader to understand what life was like for women in general, and southern black women in particular during those times.

This narrative tells but does not show the many tensions and complexities of Coretta Scott King’s life; and it reveals nothing of her personality. It feels as though it was written by someone who was gazing fondly but not thinking particularly deeply about events compiled in a family scrapbook, augmented by some random issues of JET magazine from the times.

Coretta Scott King is richer in my imagination than she comes across in this book. What the book does successfully is provide a chronological foundation for understanding the people and events who were contemporaneous with Coretta Scott King’s life of performing musical concerts and engaging in social and political activism. Maybe the King family’s iconic over-exposure to the American and international public has made them guarded and unable to reveal more than a public persona.

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A new book, My Life, My Love, My Legacy (as told to Barbara Reynolds) is being published in 2017 by Macmillan. Check out a synopsis, here.

the new book about Coretta Scott King

14 Comments

  1. How disappointing that Desert Rose didn’t give a more intimate portrait – great review and loving the comments here which just add to it. I’m very curious to see if the new book will give that more intimate portrait. Will you be giving it a try?

    1. Hi there, Amckiereads – welcome to folklore & literacy! Thank you for pointing out how the comments have added to the review. Its funny how a piece of writing can feel kind of lonely and inadequate until it connects with feedback and other voices and perspectives!
      Yes, I definitely plan to read and write about the new book. Stay tuned!

  2. What a thoughtful, honest review, Leslie. I actually feel the keenness of your disappointment, and I haven’t even read the book! I hope the new book will be more reflective of Mrs. Scott King’s essence. I’ve always admired her, and wondered what she was really like. I’m happy that she never lived in the shadow of her great husband. I suppose that’s something that could’ve happened, but she strikes me as someone who wasn’t the typical woman of that time.

    I love that you still have newspaper accounts of her funeral service. Do you scrapbook? You’re giving me ideas.

    1. You know what’s interesting, Nadine? Something I was unable to put into words 5 years ago, but which is blooming in my mind as a result of the different comments to this post: for Coretta Scott King and her sister Edythe Scott Bagley, their upbringing, educational background, and subsequent work and experiences throughout the Civil Rights Era and beyond, were their normal. Hence, in writing Desert Rose, Edythe Scott Bagley would have had to step away from that normal in order to really see and contextualize the extraordinary (thanks yo, Margaret, see below) quality of their lives.

      Funny you should notice I still have the newspaper accounts….I am actually in the midst of going through my personal archives – sorting, reviewing, organizing and purging….A lot of great raw material with creative potential. I don’t formally scrapbook but I do have a collection of news items which I’ve had laminated over the years.

      Thanks for spending so much time hanging-out at my blog, Nadine!

      1. So, by saying that about Scott Bagley, do you mean that her account is honest and unvarnished?

        Always a pleasure, Leslie. There’s quality material here, and I’m learning. 🙂

  3. The other day I decided to look at quotes credited to Mrs. King. Google also provided some lively images of her. In my opinion, she had an aura. Firstly, she was a beautiful woman. I also feel she was a very spiritual woman, blessed and filled with God’s grace. She may not have put her business in the street, but she was a sharer. The things she must have felt it prudent to keep silent, may have also been asked by her to be respected by others. Although I believe those that have studied MLK realize he was also human, many who have not would still be having a field day if any private scandals were ever made public. She was a “stand by her man” sort…and I believe that meant beyond death did they both depart. I’m happy to exalt her in my thoughts, as I believe those who know and have known “the struggle” do also.

    1. Jennifer – Thank you for these glowing observations regarding Mrs. King. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I was looking for scandal when reading the book – I was not. I’d hoped to read more about the complex richness of her spiritual and emotional life; how she felt about her travels, her love of music, about being a mother; how her personal worldview evolved through her decades of activism, both alongside her husband, as well as after he passed. Being dignified doesn’t necessarily mean her world was the same color, tone, and texture every moment, every day, every year.

      1. Leslie, thank you for this beautiful post and candid review (and candid comment, too). Such an extraordinary lady — and I was taught to use that term for those who deserve it — deserves a better indication of what was ordinary for her time and how she surpassed that.

        1. Margaret, thank you. I’m glad that you liked this post. After re-reading my 5 year old review, I considered tweaking-it, re-writing it….but realized that it has also been 5 years since I read the book, so decided to leave it alone. You’re right: Coretta Scott King was an extraordinary lady, and I look forward to reading the new book, which I think is based in her own words.

    1. Yes, Resh Susan, thank you for using the phrase “a close-to-heart narration;” which -to me – doesn’t necessarily have to be a raw invasion of privacy, a total bearing of one’s soul.

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