American history has few more iconic figures than Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Leaders in the nation's civil rights era, which has been called "the second American Revolution," they have cast long shadows over most of their contemporaries -- including the women in their lives."We've seen the men a number of times in projects," Angela Bassett says. "In our story they are in the background, and the wives are in the foreground."The 54-year-old actress is talking about Betty & Coretta, a Lifetime television movie scheduled to air Feb. 2. Bassett plays Coretta Scott King, with Mary J. Blige as Betty Shabazz. The story focuses on how the two widows coped -- and developed a personal relationship, despite their husbands' rivalry -- after the assassinations of Malcolm in 1965 and King in 1968.Both men died at age 39. Ms. King died of cancer in 2006, nine years after Ms. Shabazz died from injuries sustained in a fire set by her grandson. So both King and Shabazz had decades to establish themselves as independent women and civil-rights leaders in their own right, as well as to build the friendship that had eluded their husbands, who were separated by policy disagreements and political rivalries."The women did meet after their husbands were assassinated," Bassett says, speaking by telephone from her California home. "Both were asked to come to a black political gathering in Detroit. They were on the dais together, and they both spoke in terms of their husbands' legacy, what it meant. They had the opportunity to meet and talk, and it was the genesis of a friendship that went on for 15 years."The film, which begins shortly before Malcolm's assassination, follows the two women and their families through the ensuing years."Often Coretta would come to New York because of her work and would get together with Betty," Bassett says. "Their children came to know each other. Betty's daughter Attallah and Coretta's daughter Yolanda performed a theater piece at colleges. I knew they had a relationship, but I hadn't realized that their mothers were good friends."I saw a letter Coretta sent to one of Betty's children signed 'Auntie Coretta.'"Ironically, though she had never played King before, Bassett has played Shabazz twice, in Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), opposite Denzel Washington as Malcolm, and in Panther (1995). She met King in 2005 at Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball, a three-day event celebrating 25 African-American women in the arts and civil rights."I was in her presence," Bassett recalls. "Coretta was one of the elders, and I was a young'n. She was very regal, very gracious, Southern genteel and patient, just a beautiful, strong woman. She was extraordinarily strong. She really reflected that adage, 'Don't take my kindness for weakness.'"Bassett has spent the past couple of decades playing strong women. She played Katherine Jackson, matriarch of the singing family, in The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992), and Rosa Parks in the television movie The Rosa Parks Story (2002). Since receiving an Oscar nomination as best actress for her performance as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It (1993), Bassett has gravitated to roles of substance. "Acting is more than just fluff to me," Bassett says. "It can have an impact. I'm someone who knows history and can appreciate women's history, African-American history, American history, world history. Even when mistakes are made, lessons can be learned."Turner's mistake, she says, "was the man she married. He beat her from sun up to sun down. Her resilience and strength of character, and that of other women I've played, is what draws me to them. No one's perfect. That's what I try to portray, and the strength of those women is transferred to me. I'm not interested in being degraded."