Coretta Scott King was a forceful public figure and an important leader in the civil rights movement. She was known as the First Lady of Civil Rights. She carried on her husband Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of making America a place where all people have equal rights.
Early days and education
Coretta Scott was born in Heiberger, Alabama, on April 27, 1929. Her parents were Obadiah and Bernice Scott. They owned a farm that had been in the family since the Civil War. The family was hit so hard during the Great Depression that Coretta, her brother, and sister picked cotton to bring in extra money for the family. Her father was a resourceful man who eventually opened a country store.
Coretta graduated from Lincoln High School in 1945, and was the valedictorian. She received a scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. While attending Antioch, Coretta majored in music and education. She also participated in the college's work-study program, acting as a camp counselor, library assistant, and nursery school attendant. She took an interest in the civil rights movement, joined the local NAACP, and the college’s race relations and civil liberties communities. She graduated from Antioch College in 1951 with a B.A. in music and education. She won a scholarship to study concert singing at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
Meeting Martin Luther King Jr.
While Coretta was studying in Boston, she met Martin Luther King Jr., a theology student, and her life changed forever. They were married in a ceremony at her parent’s house, conducted by the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. on June 18, 1953.
Coretta Scott King received her degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory. The couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, after Martin accepted a call to be the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The couple was soon involved in the events that surrounded Rosa Parks, when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Many mark the incident as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Under Dr. King's leadership, the black citizens of Montgomery organized a boycott of the city’s bus system. That drew the world's attention to the continued practice of segregation in the United States.
The boycott led to a court decision that struck down all local ordinances separating the races in public transit. Because of King's successful advocacy and use of nonviolent civil disobedience, he became the most recognizable face of the civil rights movement. He was called upon to lead numerous marches in city after city, with Coretta at his side.
In 1956, white supremacists bombed the King family home in Montgomery. Coretta and their first child escaped without injury.
They would have four children, Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice.
Coretta retired from singing to rear her brood. However, she found another way to use her musical background: to assist the civil rights movement. Coretta performed a series of critically acclaimed Freedom Concerts, using poetry, narration, and music to tell the story of the movement.
With the Dr. King's fame spreading beyond the United States, he traveled to many countries to spread the word of not only American civil rights, but the international struggle for human liberation from racism and other forms of oppression. In 1957, Coretta accompanied her husband to Africa to celebrate Ghana's independence. In 1959, they traveled to India to honor the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence was the inspiration of Dr. King’s leadership. In 1962, she served as a Women's Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1964, Coretta traveled to Oslo, Norway, for her husband's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Coretta publicly opposed the Vietnam War with a 1965 antiwar rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
A dreadful act
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Coretta Scott King knew she would have to carry on her husband's work. She worked to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The center opened in 1981.
In 1969, King published her autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1970s, she upheld her husband’s commitment to further the cause of economic justice. In 1974, she formed the Full Employment Action Council, a broad coalition of more than 100 religious, labor, business, civil and women's rights organizations. She served as a council co-chair.
As King continued on her husband’s mission, she traveled throughout the world on goodwill visits. In 1983, she marked the 20th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington, D.C., by leading a gathering of more than 800 human rights organizations in the largest demonstration the capital city had seen up to that time. She also led a successful campaign to establish a national holiday honoring her husband. By an Act of Congress, the first observance of the holiday was recognized in 1986. It also is recognized as an annual holiday in more than 100 countries.
King and three of her children were arrested at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1985, for protesting against that country's apartheid system of racial segregation and disenfranchisement. In a turn of events 10 years later, she stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he was sworn in as President of South Africa.
In 1993, King was invited by President Bill Clinton to witness the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords.
After 27 years of operating The King Center, King turned over the reins to her son, Dexter Scott King, in 1995. King remained active in racial and economic justice, and in her remaining years devoted much energy to AIDS education and curbing gun violence.
A peaceful end
Coretta Scott King died in her sleep on January 31, 2006, at a rehabilitation center in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where she was being treated for ovarian cancer and the stroke she suffered in 2005.
Coretta Scott King will always be an inspirational figure to men and women around the world.