Betty and Coretta: An Untold Story of Friendship and Activism

Betty and Coretta: An Untold Story of Friendship and Activism

Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett star as “Betty & Coretta” in Lifetime’s original movie (Photo credit: Richard McLaren/Lifetime.com)

The old saying goes, “Behind every great man, there is a woman.” I have observed, however, that “beside every great man, there is a woman.” Such is the case with Civil Rights advocates, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While many are familiar with their stories, few know the stories of their devoted wives Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz. More surprisingly the friendship that formed between these two women after the assassinations of their husbands is an untold story.

That is until Lifetime boldly presented this bond of sister and womanhood in the television world premiere of “Betty and Coretta” last weekend. A corporate executive at A&E Network did confirm that the Shabazz and King families were not consulted for the film, noting the temptation for family members to protect their legacies. Given the documented inward fighting between siblings in both families, viewers can understand (at least partially) the network’s decision. Some of the heirs are not happy with the flick.

Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz and author of Growing Up X, called the film “inaccurate.” There are a few grievances raised: Contrary to Ilyasah’s statement, there are several pictures available online portraying Dr. Shabazz’s head covered with a scarf. Whether or not Dr. Shabazz spoke on her death bed is somewhat irrelevant. The point is Mrs. King did come to be at her friend, Betty’s side in the days leading up to her death. According to the children, moreover, there was a house visit portrayed in the movie which never really took place. Whenever a person’s life is brought to a film there is a certain level of embellishment that goes with the territory because producers are attempting to share a big story in a finite amount of time; smooth transitions are needed to move the story line forward and still capture the big picture. With the aforementioned reasons in mind, one can hardly call Lifetime’s portrayal a work of fiction.

Lifetime took great care adding credibility to the film by featuring actress, Ruby Dee, as narrator of the movie and dear friend of the Shabazz family. The movie picks up right before the assassinations of Malcolm (February 21, 1965) and Martin (April 4, 1968), and opened with Ruby Dee (who recently turned 90 years old) setting the stage for the times of racism, war, and poverty in America. Throughout the film she continues sharing facts about the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black National Political Convention (of 10,000 attendees where Coretta and Betty first met), the lobbying and six million signatures Mrs. King gathered to make Martin Luther King, Jr. a National Holiday, and she narrates all the way to the deaths of both phenomenal women.

The movie is not about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Malik Yoba), Malcolm X (Lindsay Owen Pierre), or their legacies per se. The movie is also not about the King and Shabazz children. The movie focuses on two women who were powerful, strong, faithful, and devoted leaders in their own rights. The film spans three decades and weaves the lives of these two civil rights activists and shares how they stood for justice.

The Women

A pregnant, Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige) and her four daughters watched her husband being gunned down as he took the stage to deliver what became his last message. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Betty delivered twin girls, which made her a single mother with six small children. With the help of friends and those in her community, Betty cared for her family and earned a doctorate degree in high-education administration from the University of Massachusetts. She became an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College. She spent the rest of her life working as an university administrator and fundraiser, before she died on June 23, 1997 as a result of injuries sustained by a fire her 10-year-old grandson, Malcolm set in her home.

As a widow, Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett) raised four children while remaining a leading participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She went from being her husband’s motivator and partner in the movement to being a justice advocate to the world. In addition to lobbying for the national King Holiday (first celebrated in January 1986), she became president, chair, and Chief Executive Officer of The King Center in Atlanta, GA. At the end of the movie, Ruby Dee notes that Mrs. King died in 2006, nine years after Dr. Shabazz, from ovarian cancer.

The movie goes beyond their advocacy works and humanizes these valiant women. It is difficult to know for sure the intimate conversations that took place between the two. There is one living legend, however, who is knowledgeable of at least some of those conversations, and that woman is Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife and widow of the first NAACP field officer, Medgar Evers. As widows of the Civil Rights Movement, Myrlie Evers-Williams shared a special bond with King and Shabazz. In the book, Betty Shabazz: A Sisterfriends Tribute in Words and Pictures, she wrote about a healing spa retreat the three of them took together. During the retreat, they committed not to talk about the assassinations of their husbands or the movement; they simply bonded as sisters and friends. She also wrote that “the three stayed in contact and tried to get together whenever they could.”

Lifetime briefly mentioned the retreat at the end of the movie (hence the purpose of the Betty Shabazz hospital bed scene). However, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ character only makes a brief appearance in the film when Dr. Shabazz took the position to teach at Medgar Evers College. Maybe one day, Myrlie Evers-Williams will tell her side of this story.

What Their Stories Mean for Us

All things considered, I believe we have a reason to rejoice with the production of this film. Mrs. King and Dr. Shabazz came together to shepherd the legacies of their husbands, but that is only part of their stories. The bigger story is these women stood together and turned their tragedies into triumphs. Even more important, both women used their faith, family, and friendships to advocate justice on behalf of women, children, the poor, and oppressed. They stood together and changed the world.

A twitter reflection by @lativida sums it up well: Take note all you dumb reality shows! This is how REAL BLACK WIVES act! These women knew real pain and persevered! #BettyandCoretta.

Betty and Coretta were strong in their own rights. They were single mothers who became grandmothers and they took care of their families. They took the mantles that were passed to them and used them as a foundation to build their communities and our nation. They remind us, each of us (the single mother, wife, or young person of any gender), of what we can do with faith, friendship, and forgiveness, for this, yes this is how real black wives behave! Thank God for their tenacity, legacies, and friendship.

The Mask of Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have transformed the way we interact, but how real are the virtual selves that we create online?
Unlike any other time in history, the average citizen is getting a taste of the world of celebrity. With little more than a laptop and a user account, we now have the power to create an “image” comprised of photo albums, status updates, and tweets. And we can reap tremendous social praise for our glam-shot photos, humor, and popularity as measured by our quantity of “friends” or “followers.”

But this new era we have knowingly entered, as with any era, will have its repercussions, many still unknown. Though social networking is passionately embraced among those eager to communicate, collaborate, and make money globally, perhaps the world of celebrity offers the best hints as to where this new culture of artificial reality could lead if we’re not careful.

Ten years ago, it would have been absurd for your sister to tell you she was getting married through an email. Just this week, my coworker found out that her sister, who she lives with, was engaged through a Facebook status. In her sister’s defense, it is much more efficient to write a Facebook status, where all of your friends and family can be alerted to an important announcement at once, rather than making separate phone calls. But it is this quest for immediacy, and the pressure to keep up with the times, that ironically will de-socialize our social-centric society. Despite this revelation, the machine cannot be stopped. Critics will become hypocrites; I am no exception as I type this “revelation” on my iPhone while having lunch with a friend.

Celebrities are being forced to become more “real,” via outlets like Twitter, in order to synergize with the new self-made celebrities of social networks and reality television. A Facebook or Twitter profile is seen as a more accurate portrayal of an individual, because it offers the full spectrum of life — personal, professional, and emotional — and it is often less censored than their public persona. What we are discovering is that relatable and local characters are more compelling than super-sensationalized celebrities. Ironically, this encourages the average, “real” citizen to create a more sensationalized version of their own public persona.

By now, both critics and enthusiasts have acknowledged the “Facebook Effect,” but back when the quiet storm was still developing in Silicon Valley, no one could have predicted the power of its impact. This freedom that social networks provide has facilitated political movements, the most recent being the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which were driven, in part, by messages on Facebook.

While people are starting to realize the power of “image” on social networks, be it real or false, Internet-image security is quickly becoming a powerful new industry, as the world is made smaller and people are forced to submit to the social machine. For example, a new application called uProtect.it was recently introduced on Facebook, to protect comments, status updates, and even prevent Facebook from accessing them. Michael Fertig, CEO of Reputation.com, the company that created the app, highlights its social and political implications: “You want to help the guys in Tunisia? Here’s your tool.”

These concerns spark paranoia, not only for citizens of oppressive nations but also among average citizens right here in the United States who not want their bosses finding out what they did on their “sick day.”

So why can’t we stop sharing our personal business on the Internet? Is it therapeutic, or have we become so self-obsessed that we truly believe the world cares about our every rant and rave?

Movies about the future have all offered commentary on where they think the world is headed socially, and it has always been toward an apathetic, narcissistic society. Although the insights are typically guided by humor, the writers are clearly on to something. The Pixar film Wall-E (2008), for instance, depicted a future where careless humans consumed all the Earth’s resources and were forced to live on a space shuttle. The humans are obese, mobile only with the assistance of flying La-Z-Boy-style chairs. They have no face-to-face interaction; they speak to each other on video chat screens, usually around a pool that they never swim in. The film suggests not only that the trend of ever-greater convenience will eventually lead to chronic laziness, but also that our technology will one day reshape our reality.

A false and perverted reality is also the theme of the 2009 film Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. This film takes place in a future world where people never leave their home, but interact through surrogate robots that go into the world as more polished versions of themselves. The surrogates are physically and cosmetically superior to their owners. Although this may be extreme, social networks in many ways serve a similar function. We present ourselves in a manner that we feel is more attractive and appealing, and ultimately many of us prefer sharing and interacting that way over connecting in person because of the control we have to carefully manage our image.

It’s obvious that social networking is changing the psychology of our culture. We love being constantly “plugged in.” We crave the immediacy of communication and the instant gratification of seeing friends respond to our random thoughts and observations. We also love the way it has helped us improve our sense of self. Thanks to social media, we now have the opportunity to create an artificial version of ourselves that makes us look good to our friends and followers. But in our enthusiasm to connect, are we in danger of trading truth for virtual reality?
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