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Friendship Between Widows Of Murdered Civil Rights Leaders Inspires Kansas City Playwright

Jacqee Gafford

The widows may have bonded so strongly because their husbands had been murdered within five years of each other. Or perhaps they were drawn together by the weight of tending to their husbands’ legacies.

Whatever speculation yields, only Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers and Betty Shabazz knew why they became and remained friends long after their children were grown.

Kansas City playwright Jacqee Gafford has used her imagination — and a great deal of research — to create an afternoon in the lives of the women who married Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X for her new one-act, titled “Dark was their Journey.”

“I really wanted to bring out how they felt for their husbands, their legacies, the things they did for their children, and just basically how they survived during that period,” Gafford says.

In the early 1980s, Gafford was curious about the friendship between King’s and Malcolm X’s daughters; the two had written a playtogether and were touring schools across the nation presenting it as a message of hope to kids who were struggling.

As she read more about the daughters, she discovered a sisterly relationship between the widows as well. She dug deeper and learned that the women had leaned on each other for years. The three families were in frequent contact, and their children grew up together.

In their later lives, the women met at resorts in the off-season when it was quiet and they wouldn’t be bothered by curious onlookers. The play is set during one of these getaways.

“I wanted to encapsulate this and just have them talk to each other and be girlfriends,” Gafford says. “They tease each other, they comfort each other, they reprimand each other.”

The result is an extremely humanizing look not only at the widows, but at the legendary historical figures who were their husbands, says Sara Peterson-Davis, a community programming director at the Mid-Continental Public Library, which hosted a reading of the play on April 4 and has another scheduled for April 11.

Credit Dylan Little / Mid-Continent Public Library
Mid-Continent Public Library
(From left) Lynn King as Coretta Scott King, Karen Cline Wright as Myrlie Evers-Williams and Jacqee Gafford as Betty Shabazz at the Raytown Branch of the Mid-Continental Public Library on April 4.

The hour and a half production was a great fit for the library, Peterson-Davis says, for several reasons: the thought-provoking material; that it was created by a local writer; that it would inspire the public to want to know more.

“I was three years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated,” Peterson-Davis says. “It was in my lifetime, and of course I learned about it in school, but this play really wove in a lot of facts that I had forgotten or I never knew at all.”

Reminders and reeducation were largely Gafford’s intent. She says that as she tried to determine what to include, she asked herself what the public knows the least about within these heart-rending yet inspiring stories. And that was the life of Myrlie Evers.

Myrlie’s husband, Medgar, was the first of the three men to be assassinated; that was in 1963. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and King in 1968.

The only of the women still living, Myrlie remains fairly private, though she has devoted her life to civil service and delivered the invocation speech at President Obama’s second inauguration. Betty Shabazz died in 1997 and Coretta Scott King in 2006.

Gafford gathered as many primary source documents as she could find — the women all wrote about their lives and gave numerous speeches that were digitally preserved — for more details and included all she could in the play.

One thing she enjoyed reading about was Myrlie and Medgar’s romance, which seemed atypical for black romances in the 1940s. Myrlie was about eight years Medgar’s junior; he was an Army veteran and she was a teenager when they met in college. And though Myrlie’s grandmother adamantly opposed the union, the two married anyway. A love match, Gafford calls it, because Myrlie wasn’t pregnant and they had to fight to be together.

The two led the battle for voting rights and desegregation in the South until Medgar’s assassination.

Also unusual in the lives of these women was that they were all college-educated and held advanced degrees, unlike the majority of black women coming of age in the 1940s.

“It turned out that they did depend on each other,” Gafford says, “even though they were strong enough to go their separate ways and they all had accomplishments beyond their husbands’ deaths, but they still were friends.”

Peterson-Davis says she loved the sense of intimacy offered by the play, which made her feel privy to details the media glosses over.

“The people that we see as historical figures were and are real people, and they have all the same emotions and issues and struggles that we do every day. You think that theirs are greater or lesser or they don’t feel things in the same way, but really they do,” she says.

Librarian Dylan Little says he was awed by the reading and that the crowd seemed to be, too.

“The performances were really great and magnetic,” he says.

An element of the women’s enduring relationship that sticks with her, Gafford says, was their goal of preserving their husbands’ memories within the family.

“One of the driving forces behind their lives was to raise good American citizens and to make sure that their children knew who their fathers were, not the distorted view the media presented,” Gafford says. “The media didn’t quite know who these men were.”

Even fewer people likely know who the three women really were. Gafford is doing her part to change that.

“Dark Was Their Journey,” 6:30 p.m, Wednesday, April 11, Midwest Genealogy Center, 3440 S Lee's Summit Rd., Independence, Missouri 64055. Event is free and open to the public. Please register online or call 816-252-7228.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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