By Tessa Raebeck
Before she began dating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King traveled with her boyfriend at the time, a white, Jewish boy, to spend Thanksgiving with his white, Jewish family. Upon arrival, however, Scott King, a college freshman, learned that her boyfriend had failed to mention to his family that the new girlfriend he was bringing home to meet them was black. The family objected, refusing to let them stay, and the young couple ate their Thanksgiving meal at a roadside diner.
“It took me a long time to get stories like that out of her,” said Tina Andrews, a noted actor, screenwriter, producer and director who spent over 120 hours interviewing Scott King before she passed away in 2006.
Conducted over the course of three years, the extensive interviews act as the foundation for Andrews’ new play, “Coretta: Promise to the Dream,” a one-woman show chronicling the life of Coretta Scott King. The show will premiere at the Southampton Cultural Center this Friday, February 7.
Best known for her role in the famous and groundbreaking 1977 mini-series “Roots,” Andrews wrote the play, directs it and stars in it as the only actor, alternating between playing Coretta and herself.
“I would like to think of her as a friend,” Andrews said of Coretta. From 2002 to 2005, during the last years of Coretta’s life, the pair spent significant time sharing ideas and swapping stories of their lives, from their experiences dating in college to the impact of the civil rights movement.
Hesitant to go public with her stories, Scott King permitted Andrews to interview her only after she saw “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” a television miniseries written by Andrews.
“What I love about the story is that I think of myself as a child of the dream,” said Andrews, who, like the modern civil rights movement, was born in the early 1950’s.
“So,” she added, recalling her friend, “she and Dr. King stood against the hoses and the dogs and the billy clubs beating them and jail and all of that, so that I could actually become an executive producer and writer of a CBS miniseries.”
When they first met, Andrews told Scott King, “I stand on your shoulders.” She began to cry and then, struck by Scott King’s beauty, exclaimed, “’Dr. King must have lost his mind when he first met you!’”
That mix of humor with drama, of light stories with harsh realities, is present in all Andrews’ work and especially throughout “Coretta: Promise to the Dream.”
Although it chronicles a lifetime’s worth of progress at the center of the civil rights movement, the play is, above all else, a love story.
“It was that love that endured,” said Andrews, “that made her then fight and pick up the gauntlet after he died to find the other co-conspirators in his death and to make his birthday a holiday.”
Following Dr. King’s death in 1968, rather than shying away in mourning, Scott King picked up her husband’s gavel. For three months, she gave his speeches and fulfilled his obligations. She spearheaded fundraising efforts and established The King Center in Atlanta that same year.
For 15 years, she lobbied Congress to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in 1983, making the third Monday of January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In 1999, Scott King won a civil trial against Loyd Jowers, a co-conspirator in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Shelby County, Tennessee trial found Jowers and unknown co-defendants, including government agencies, civilly liable for participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King. Despite its huge implications, the trial received virtually no publicity in the mainstream media.
“It did not reach the front pages of not one newspaper in this country,” Andrews said of the civil trial. “She couldn’t understand it. I can’t. No one can understand it.”
Civil trials require financial attachments to proceed; Scott King attached a mere $100.
“She only wanted the information to get out,” said Andrews, who uses the testimony and trial transcripts in her show, adding, “At least with this one person, there was enough justice so that she felt that she had done her little part to at least expose that there may have been a conspiracy with regard to the death of Dr. King.”
“She said,” added Andrews of Scott King, “everybody’s getting older and everyone is getting sick and I want to know, I want it out there even if I only can take one of these guys to trial, I just want some justice for my husband…I just need to get to the bottom of this for my peace of mind.”
When Scott King brought Dr. King’s body back from Memphis following his assassination, she promised him she would “get to the bottom of this,” Andrews said, making her promise to the dream.
“She was his first lady,” said Andrews, “but people always push the partner aside in talking about the powerful man, not realizing that that man cannot be as powerful as he is without the help of a powerful woman.”
“Coretta: Promise to the Dream” will be shown Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. from February 7 through February 23 at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. For more information, call 631-287-4377.