Review: Desert Rose
Edythe Scott Bagley. Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. 318 pp. ISBN 978-0-8173-1765-2.
The name of Coretta Scott King is too often associated with the image of the supportive wife who stood behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., contributing substantially to the advancement of his public roles as a preacher, pastor, and civil rights leader. That image is challenged and corrected in Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King. Written by Edythe Scott Bagley, educator, activist, and sister of Coretta Scott King, this biography highlights King’s life and contributions as a person of faith, artist, and civil rights activist. It is an excellent starting point for those who seek a more thoughtful judgment about King’s place and significance in our history.
Bagley suggests that regional identity and regional responsibility were of foremost importance in the shaping of King’s life, thinking, and sense of purpose and mission. The title of the book, Desert Rose, was derived from Bagley’s “knowledge of the region and culture” in which she and Coretta “were born and reared” (x). The sisters grew up in rural Marion, Alabama, in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt, under the stern and often debilitating restrictions of the Jim Crow South. According to Bagley, that experience shaped King’s determination to put her education, artistic gifts, faith, and social activism to the service of creating a better quality of life for herself, her family, and people in America and abroad. Apparently, King’s secondary training at the Lincoln School in Marion, as well her studies at Antioch College in Ohio and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, were instrumental not only in her development as a concert singer, but also in the shaping of her social consciousness and her desire to struggle for social, political, and economic justice. “In so doing,” writes Bagley, King’s “life was like a rose pushing up from the parched, dry ground, and springing forth in a beautiful blossom” (x).
Desert Rose effectively undermines the widely held belief that King’s personal quest for equal rights and social justice grew out of her association with Martin Luther King, Jr. It shows that the two walked down that path together, as Dr. King so often said. Bagley makes the point in more emphatic terms, noting that she and her sister were products of a family of proud, land-owning black farmers who were highly committed to the ideals of education and social equality. Much attention is devoted to Obadiah and Bernice Scott, Bagley’s and King’s parents, to Cora McLaughlin Scott, their paternal grandmother, and to countless other relatives who prepared the ground for their shared educational and social commitments as far back as the period of slavery. Thus, Desert Rose is not merely a detailed account of one woman’s life, but the story of a family that viewed education and civil rights activism as the key to freedom and empowerment.
King’s relationship to Dr. King, courses through much of Desert Rose, adding yet another chapter to the unfolding record of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Virtually every civil rights campaign led by Dr. King is discussed, from the Montgomery bus boycott (1955–1956) up to that final sanitation worker’s crusade in Memphis, Tennessee (1968), with special attention to King’s involvements. As Bagley suggests, the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, on April 4, 1968, catapulted King to leadership roles that she had not sought nor anticipated. From that point, according to Bagley, King skillfully combined a commitment to motherhood and the raising of her and Dr. King’s four children with a deep devotion to freedom causes in South Africa and elsewhere abroad, and to the preservation of her husband’s legacy through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, and the National King Holiday. Desert Rose is actually a vade mecum for those who are interested in the many dimensions of Coretta Scott King’s life and work. In this regard, Bagley achieves the book’s stated purpose.
It is equally important to note that Desert Rose represents a luminous addition to the growing body of scholarship on women in the civil rights movement. The appearance of this biography, along with recent works concerning Rosa L. Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others, compels readers to move beyond a mere male-centric reading of the civil rights movement and its rich legacy. Readers are reminded once again of the pivotal importance of female leadership in the movement.
Desert Rose is slightly marred by the absence of a decisively critical focus, but this is understandable when one considers the intimate relationship between the author and the subject matter. But this apparent weakness is more than compensated for by the book’s many strengths, particularly in the sense that it provides details of King’s life that do not appear in other works, including her own My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969; reprinted in 1991).
This biography is a pleasure to read, and, because of Bagley’s simple and engaging writing style, it will undoubtedly appeal to the general reading public. Historians, sociologists, cultural theorists, religious scholars, and specialists in other fields who hold a special interest in African American history and culture and the civil rights movement will benefit from Bagley’s sophisticated presentation and analysis. Desert Rose is a masterfully conceived, carefully crafted, and richly insightful work. The perspective it provides on Coretta Scott King is rather unique, quite necessary, and helpful.