Coretta Scott King (April 27, 1927 - January 30, 2006) was the wife of the assassinated civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., and a noted community leader in her own right.
During the Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and 1960s she worked alongside her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, to help spearhead the American Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King took the helm of the civil rights cause during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, initiated by Rosa Parks historic act of civil disobedience when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus.
Along with other black leaders of the time, such as Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, the 1 Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed with the mission to which appeal to the federal government to challenge unjust and unconstitutional laws supporting segregation of the races. Coretta Scott King worked behind the scenes with other wives such as Juanita Abernathy and Jean Young to lend support to the cause with tremendous spirit, purpose, and vision.
Childhood and education
Coretta Scott was born on a farm in Heiberger, Alabama to Obadiah Scott and Bernice McMurry. She had an older sister Edythe and a younger brother Obadiah Leonard. Though her family owned the land, it was often a hard life and all the children helped by picking cotton. Life on the farm was especially difficult during the Great Depression but they were a close knit family and church (Mt. Tabor A.M.E. Zion) was an important part of their lives. Her grandfather, Jeff Scott was a leader in their farming community. Three generations living together instilled in young Coretta the value of community service and education. Coretta graduated from Lincoln Normal School in Marion, Alabama at the top of her class in 1945.
From the perspective of a happy childhood, Coretta was able to view the unfairness of segregation, especially at school. Since passage of Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, (the separate but equal decision of the U.S. Supreme Court) blacks were relegated to their own, mostly inferior, schools, and all public facilities, like restaurants, libraries, even parks, were kept separate, yet unequal, for African Americans. From a young age Coretta knew that she would be a part of the change needed for her people. She followed her older sister to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Both her and her sister wanted to attend college in the North where life was somewhat more progressive, although there were only a few black students at Antioch (her sister was the first black student to live on campus). The only blight on her experience there was that she was unable to student teach in the Yellow Springs School District because it was segregated. As an undergraduate, she took an active interest in the nascent civil rights movement; she joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP, and the college's Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees. After graduation she won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music to study vocal performance in Boston.
Marriage and Montgomery, Alabama
While studying music, she met King, then pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Theology at Boston University. Reminiscing about their meeting she told an interviewer, "… he was looking for a wife. I wasn't looking for a husband, but he was a wonderful human being. I still resisted his overtures, but after he persisted, I had to pray about it… I had a dream, and in that dream, I was made to feel that I should allow myself to be open and stop fighting the relationship. That's what I did, and of course the rest is history." 2
The Kings' wedding ceremony, held on the lawn of her parents' home on June 18, 1953, was officiated by the elder Rev. Michael King, known as "Daddy King." Afterwards, Coretta completed her degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory and moved with her husband to Montgomery, Alabama in September 1954, where he was named pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Although the young couple enjoyed the more liberal North they also felt a calling to return to the South and try to make a difference there. As it turned out Martin Luther King was called into action on December 5, 1954, the day of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus to a white person. The first boycott started two weeks after their first child was born in 1955, and in 1956, the King home was bombed. With the support of their church, and their faith in the civil rights cause the Kings determined to “Be nice, Be kind, Be nonviolent.” This was not only an expression of their Christian faith but it was Martin Luther King's firm belief that nonviolence was the most effective way to bring about change, particularly in the South. Although civil rights efforts were met with resistance, hatred, and even jail time, Dr. King's nonviolent approach to civil disobedience would prove to be successful.
In the book, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta wrote about the March 1959 trip to India the couple made at the invitation of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. She recalled a lengthy conversation between her husband and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during which they discussed Mohandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence and its use in the civil rights struggle.
She wrote that she wanted to discuss the role of women in the independence movement. "We knew that Gandhi had involved the women of India in the struggle for independence and that many of them had gone to jail like the men. Gandhi also worked to liberate women from the bondage of Hindu and Muslim traditions." 3
1960s and Civil Rights
In 1962 while her husband was involved on the national scene with the civil rights struggle Mrs. King, long interested in global issues of peace, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland as a Women's Strike for Peace delegate in order to influence atomic test-ban talks. She was a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
In 1964, a pinnacle year for civil rights, Mrs. King organized a series of freedom concerts, which combined poetry, narration and music to highlight and to raise funds for the Civil Rights movement.
On April 4, 1968, four days after her husband was assassinated, Coretta Scott King marched in his place in Memphis, Tennessee (in support of the sanitation worker's strike.) An excerpt of the speech she gave to stunned and grieving Americans reads:
And those of you who believe in what Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for, I would challenge you today to see that his spirit never dies and that we will go forward from this experience, which to me represents the Crucifixion, on toward the resurrection and the redemption of the spirit.
Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. had four children - all active, themselves, with civil rights issues. They are: Yolanda Denise King, Martin Luther King, III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice Albertine King.
Life after Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King DayCoretta Scott King, along with Rosalynn Carter, Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter, and other civil rights leaders during a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, January 14, 1979.
Over the years Mrs. King was active in preserving the legacy and memory of her husband. After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, she began attending a commemorative service every January 15, the anniversary of his birthday, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, where he had been co-pastor alongside his father. She worked for many years to make this a national holiday, a quest that was finally realized in 1986, when the first Martin Luther King Day was celebrated.
Coretta Scott King attended the state funeral of Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1973, as a close friend of the former president, himself a contributor to civil rights (see Civil Rights Act of 1964.) She was also present when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing Martin Luther King Day.
Opposition to apartheid
During the 1980s, King reaffirmed her long-standing opposition to apartheid, participating in a series of sit-in protests in Washington, D.C. that prompted nationwide demonstrations against South African racial policies.
In 1986, she traveled to South Africa and met with Winnie Mandela, while Mandela's husband Nelson Mandela was still a political prisoner on Robben Island. She declined invitations from Pik Botha and moderate Zulu chief Buthelezi 4 Upon her return to the United States, she urged President Reagan to approve sanctions against South Africa.
Speaking of the importance of civil rights for gay and lesbian people, Coretta Scott King said in March of 1998, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice.… But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'" Coretta Scott King supported a federal bill prohibiting anti-gay discrimination.
In March 2004, she told a university audience that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue and denounced a proposed amendment to the Constitution to ban it. Mrs. King's support of Gay rights often drew the ire of the Christian community, some black ministers included.
President of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) organization's Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese, made the following statement on the passing of civil rights leader Coretta Scott King. "Once in a lifetime God grants us with the ability to witness an extraordinary life dedicated to justice. With Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., God smiled on us and fortunately granted us two,” said Solmonese. “When her husband was killed, Mrs. King assumed her husband's role as the guiding light that led the way toward a more equal nation. She performed that role with enormous grace and strength, never relenting in the movement for civil rights. She saw justice as a birthright and lent her voice as a relentless advocate for all fair-minded Americans, gay or straight, black or white. We join the nation in mourning the loss of a great hero and give enormous gratitude for all that she's left behind."
King called her adoption of a vegan diet in 1995 a blessing. Her son, Dexter, had been vegan since 1988, saying that an appreciation for animal rights is the "logical extension" of his father's philosophy of non-violence.
Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Award and honors 5 a medal presented by the American Library Association, is awarded to African-American authors and illustrators for outstanding and inspirational educational contributions in children's literature.
Past recipients include:
- 2007: Sharon Draper, Copper Sun, ISBN 0689821816
- 2006: Kadir Nelson, Illus. and Carole Boston Weatherford, author Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, ISBN 0786851759
- 2005: Toni Morrison, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, ISBN 061839740X
- 2004: Angela Johnson, The First Part Last, ISBN 0689849222
- 2002: Mildred Taylor, The Land, ISBN 0803719507
The King Center
The King Center was established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King. A nonprofit agency dedicated to achieving the goals of Dr. King, it is officially called the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The center is housed in Freedom Hall, located in Atlanta across Auburn Avenue from the National Park Service visitor center. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s gravesite and a reflecting pool are located next to Freedom Hall. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site encompasses several blocks including the boyhood home of Dr. King.
As the institutional guardian of Dr. King's legacy, the King Center, in collaboration with other organizations, focuses on the following areas:
- The development and dissemination of programs that educate the world about Dr. King's philosophy, methods of nonviolence, and ideas related to the service of mankind
- Building a national and international network of organizations that, through sanctioned programs, promote, complement, and help further the organization's mission and objectives of building the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned
- Functioning as the clearinghouse for non-profit organizations and government agencies that utilize Dr. King's image and writings for programs and ensuring that the programs are historically and interpretively accurate;
- Monitoring and reporting on the impact of Dr. King's worldwide legacy. 6
Programs and services
The King Center has a wide variety of programs and services in place to fulfill the organization's mission of building Dr. King's "Beloved Community."
These programs and services include:
- The Beloved Community Network
- Nonviolence Online Learning Program
- Re-Ignite the Dream Campaign: Building the Beloved Community through Service
- King and the Modern Civil Rights Museum Scholar and Historian Research Program
- The King Papers Project
- Education through Exploration Visitor Services Program
- Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Service Summit
Coretta Scott King received honorary degrees from many institutions including Princeton University, Duke University, and Bates College. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a noted African-American sorority.
On October 12, 2004 she was awarded the Gandhi Peace Award in Atlanta as part of the 135th birth anniversary celebrations for Mahatma Gandhi. 7
Final daysCoretta Scott King's grave, Atlanta, Georgia
On August 16, 2005, King was hospitalized after suffering a stroke and a mild heart attack. Initially, she was unable to speak or move her right side. She was released from Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta on September 22, 2005, after regaining some of her speech and continued physiotherapy at home. Because of complications from the stroke, she was apparently unable to make her wishes known regarding the ongoing debate as to whether the King Center would continue to operate independently or be sold to the National Park Service. On January 14, 2006, Mrs. King made her last public appearance in Atlanta at a dinner honoring her husband's memory.
Mrs. King died in the late evening of January 30, 2006 8 at a rehabilitation center in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where she was undergoing holistic therapy to treat her stroke and advanced stage ovarian cancer.
Over 14,000 people gathered for King's six-hour funeral at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, on February 7, 2006 where daughter Bernice King is an elder. The megachurch, whose sanctuary seats ten thousand, was better able to handle the expected crowd than Ebenezer Baptist Church where King had been a member since the early 1960s and which was the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral in 1968.
President George W. Bush and many former U.S. presidents and their wives attended. Numerous other political and prominent civil rights leaders attended the televised service, including the Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency, the Right Honorable Michaelle Jean.
Mrs. King was buried in a temporary mausoleum on the grounds of the King Center until a permanent place next to her husband's remains can be built. 9 She had expressed to family members and others that she wanted her remains to lie next to her husband's at the King Center, which will be altered to accommodate her re-burial there at some future date. 10
President George W. Bush opened his State of the Union address the night of January 31, 2006, by paying tribute to Coretta Scott King. On February 6, Bush issued a proclamation that flags were to be flown at half staff throughout the day of King's internment, February 7. 11
King's body was returned to Atlanta and carried through the streets on a horse-drawn carriage to the Georgia State Capitol as the crowd threw roses at the casket and a lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace." King became the first woman and black person to lie in state at the Georgia State Capitol. King's body also lay for viewing at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
A proposal before the Atlanta City Council (as of April 2006) would rename Atlanta's Simpson Street/Road after Mrs. King. The road bisects the Vine City neighborhood, a long time residence of Mrs. King and, earlier, the King family.
Senate and House resolutions
Upon the news of her death, moments of reflection, remembrance, and mourning began around the world. In the United States Senate, Bill Frist presented Senate Resolution 362 on behalf of all U.S. Senators, with the afternoon hours filled with respectful tributes throughout the U. S. Capitol.
On January 31, 2006 following a moment of silence in memoriam to the death of King, the United States House of Representatives presented House Resolution 655 in honor of Mrs. King's legacy. The remembrances that followed were both emotional and poignant. John Lewis (D-Georgia) stated:
I first met Mrs. King in 1957 when I was only 17 years old. I was a student in Nashville, Tennessee. She was traveling around America, especially in cities of the South telling the story of the Montgomery movement through song. She was so beautiful, so inspiring, she would sing a little, and she would talk a little, and through her singing and talks she inspired an entire generation.
- ↑ Stanford Univ. 1King Encyclopedia, "Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ About.com "U.S. Liberals: Coretta King" 2Quotes from Coretta Scott King. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ Shelia M. Poole, The Hindu, online edition of India's National Newspaper 3Opinion: "Coretta Scott King's Gandhian Ideals." Feb. 09, 2006. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ Telegraph, UK:Obituary4. January 2, 2006"Coretta Scott King" Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ The King Center Coretta Scott King Award Coretta Scott King Award.Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ The King Center 5"Mission."Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ Sify News6"Luther King Jr.'s widow awarded Gandhi Peace Prize" October 12, 2004,Ironically, Coretta died on the 58th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ MSNBC Breaking News7AP: "Coretta Scott King dead at 78" January 31, 2006. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ Denis O'Hayer, 11 Alive News8"Coretta King to rest at King Center: Feb. 04, 2006. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ Karyn Greer911 Alive: News "King Funerl Plans Announced" Feb. 03, 2006. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- ↑ The White House: Proclamation Archives 10"A Proclamation by the President: Death of Coretta Scott King" with Photo Essay: "Remembering Coretta Scott King" Feb. 6, 2006. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
- King, Coretta Scott. My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Henry, Holt and Co., Revised edition, 1993. ISBN 080502445X
- Turk, Ruth. Coretta Scott King: Fighter for Justice. Boston, MA: Branden Books, 1997. ISBN 0828320284
- Rhodes, Lisa Renee, Coretta Scott King. (Black Americans of Achievement), New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1998. ISBN 0791046915
- "You have the conception of New Orleans jazz: group improvisation, cooperative ensemble playing, which functions exactly like a democracy. Which means each person has the right to play what they want to play, but the responsibility to play something that makes everybody else sound good."
- "When you are willing to make sacrifices for a great cause, you will never be alone."
- "Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul."
All links retrieved March 23, 2017.
- CNN.com - Coretta Scott King dies
- BBC News - Coretta Scott King dies aged 78
- Coretta Scott King entry from African American Lives - OUP Blog
- Find a Grave - Coretta Scott King
- Coretta Scott King, the Woman Who Stood Alone February 1, 2006, The Washington Post