Coretta Scott King (27 Apr. 1927–30 January 2006) was born in Heiberger, near Marion, Alabama, the second of three children of Obadiah Scott and Bernice McMurry, who farmed their own land. Although Coretta and her siblings worked in the garden and fields, hoeing and picking cotton, the Scotts were relatively well off. Her father was the first African American in the community to own a truck, which he used to transport pulpwood, and he also purchased his own sawmill, which was mysteriously burned to the ground a few days later. The family blamed the fire on whites jealous of their success.
Wanting a better life for their children, the Scotts sent all three to college. Coretta, who graduated at the top of her high school class in 1945, won a scholarship to study elementary education and music at to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She matriculated in 1945 and was one of only three African Americans in her class; the future jurist A. Leon Higginbotham was one of the others. Scott was active in extracurricular activities, especially in projects designed to improve race relations. She joined the college chapter of the NAACP and performed onstage at Antioch with Paul Robeson, the actor, singer, and activist, who encouraged her to pursue a musical career.
Scott studied piano and the violin, but focused on singing. She gave her first solo concert in 1948 and graduated with a BA from Antioch in Music Education three years later, in 1951. That year she enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, on a full-tuition fellowship.
Moving to Boston changed the course of Coretta Scott’s life in more ways than one, for in 1952 a friend there introduced her to Martin Luther King Jr., an ordained Baptist minister who was attending Boston University’s School of Theology. Although she has said that she never wanted to be the wife of a pastor, Scott warmed to the theology student’s sincere passion for social justice and also fell for his distinctive line of flattery. She later recalled that King “was a typical man. Smoothness. Jive. Some of it I had never heard of in my life. It was what I call intellectual jive.” King, for his part, admired Scott for standing up to his father, who wanted him to marry into one of Atlanta’s leading black families. Scott bluntly told the imposing Daddy King that she, too, was from one of the finest families. Soon thereafter King Sr. accepted his son’s choice and performed the couple’s wedding ceremony in June 1953. Coretta asserted her independence, however, by excluding a promise to obey her husband in her wedding vows. In 1954, the year Coretta Scott King graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, her husband accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
The young couple could not have known that the direction of their lives again would be dramatically altered the following year. On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a local NAACP official, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery. Her arrest changed the course of southern history, for it united and mobilized Montgomery’s black community under Martin Luther King’s leadership in a mass boycott of the city’s segregated bus system. The subsequent national and international press coverage made the young minister and his wife household names.
Coretta King developed an iron will and a steely resolve to support her husband’s commitment to civil rights by handling mail, telephone calls, and sometimes speaking at engagements that he was unable to attend. She also participated in musical programs to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Coretta’s primary focus in the early years of the civil rights movement, however, was her family. She gave birth to four children: Yolande in 1955, Martin III in 1957, Dexter in 1961, and Bernice in 1963.
Coretta King was less content to take a back seat when it came to matters of war and peace, as she had been a committed pacifist since her time at Antioch, where visiting speakers like Bayard Rustin had encouraged her nonviolent philosophy. Coretta strongly influenced her husband’s evolving opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1961 she attended a disarmament conference in Geneva, Switzerland, as a member of the group Women Strike for Peace. While her husband refrained from publicly challenging the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ foreign policy in the early 1960s, Coretta King attended several peace rallies and picketed the White House in 1965.
Tragically, Coretta Scott King would take center stage in the civil rights movement only after her husband’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968. Four days later she led a memorial march in Memphis, estimated at fifty thousand people. The international media spotlight continued to focus on the slain civil rights leader’s family during King’s funeral in Atlanta, which was attended by thousands of mourners and watched by millions on television. Coretta Scott King supported several SCLC projects in the wake of her husband’s death. In the summer of 1968 she was one of the speakers at the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., and received national media attention when she, along with others in SCLC, led a protest march by striking hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1969.
In the 1970s Coretta King established and chaired the Martin L. King Jr. Memorial Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. This project took her around the world in search of financial support, lecturing to audiences numbering in the hundreds. The King Center, which was dedicated on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta in 1981, contains more than one million documents related to the King family’s civil rights activities.
Coretta King’s most enduring contribution to American culture has been as chair of the Martin L. King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. In the late 1970s the King Center collected six million signatures on a petition urging the creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial holiday, and in November 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the bill designating the national holiday.
King’s involvement in the civil rights cause continued in the 1980s and 1990s. She was prominent in demonstrations against South Africa’s apartheid system and has appeared at anniversary celebrations of her husband’s most memorable speech at the 1963 March on Washington. In 1997 she supported a move granting a new trial for her husband’s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, but Ray died before a new trial was scheduled. Her most recent cause had been a project to build a memorial for her husband on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Throughout her lifetime, Coretta Scott King has supported many progressive measures and received many awards and numerous honorary degrees. Perhaps the most prestigious and enduring was not given to her but rather is awarded in her name. The American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award, established in the early 1970s, is given to highly distinguished African American writers and illustrators of children’s literature.
from African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.