Betty and Coretta: An Untold Story of Friendship and Activism

Lifetime's original movie highlights their activism and explores the untold story of friendship between the two widows of famous civil rights leaders.

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.

About the author, Natasha S. Robinson

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women's Mentoring Ministry Leader, and recent graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary having earned a M.A. in Christian Leadership. Connect with Natasha through her website, www.natashasrobinson.com; blog, A Sista's Journey, Twitter @asistasjourney, and Facebook at NatashaSistrunkRobinson.
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