“Before I was married to Martin and became a King, I was a proud Scott, shaped by my mother’s discernment and my father’s strength,” a declaration made by Coretta Scott King, one of the most influential and prominent female leaders the world has known. Her family, education, and personality molded her for a life committed to social justice and peace. Coretta entered the world stage in 1955, as the wife of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her remarkable union with Dr. King resulted not only in four children, who became dedicated to carrying forward their parent’s work, but also in a life devoted to the highest values of human dignity in service to social change.
Born on April 27, 1927, in Marion Alabama, Coretta was the third of four children. She was born in her parents’ home with her paternal great-grandmother Delia Scott, a former slave, presiding as midwife. Her father, Obadiah Scott was one of the first black people in their town to own a vehicle. Before starting his own businesses he worked as a policeman. He ran a clothing shop far from their home and later opened a general store. Her mother, Bernice McMurry Scott, worked as a school bus driver, a church pianist, and for her husband in his business ventures. She served as Worthy Matron for her Eastern Star chapter and was a member of the local Literacy Federated Club.
The Scott family had owned a farm since the American Civil War, but were not particularly wealthy. During the Great Depression the Scott children picked cotton to help earn money. Coretta, her two sisters Edythe and Eunice, and their younger brother Obadiah Leonard, all shared a bedroom with their parents. At the age of 10, Coretta, along with her siblings worked to increase the family’s income.
Coretta graduated valedictorian from Lincoln High School. She received a B.A. in music and education from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. After earning a scholarship, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she earned a degree in voice and violin. While studying in Boston, she met Martin Luther King, Jr. who was then studying for his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University.
A mutual friend, Mary Powell, gave Coretta’s phone number to Dr. King after he’d inquired about girls on the campus. Initially, Coretta showed little interest in meeting him, however, with time things eventually changed. She continued to see him regularly.
On June 18, 1953, they were married on the lawn of her mother’s house. The ceremony was performed by Dr. King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. The following year, they relocated to Montgomery, Alabama where Coretta assumed the many responsibilities of pastor’s wife at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The couple had four children, Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine.
Before long, the couple found themselves in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King was elected leader of the protest movement. As the boycott continue, Coretta answered numerous phone calls threatening her husband’s life. On December 23, 1955, two days after the integration of Montgomery’s bus service, a gunshot rang through the front door of the King home while Coretta, her husband and Yolanda were asleep. The three were not harmed.
In the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, she balanced motherhood and Movement work, speaking before church organizations, civic groups, colleges, fraternal organizations, and peace groups. She orchestrated and performed a series of favorably-reviewed Freedom Concerts which combined prose and poetry narration with musical selections. These concerts functioned as significant fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization of which Dr. King served as the first president.
In 1957, she and Dr. King traveled to Ghana to mark that country’s independence. In 1958, they spent a belated honeymoon in Mexico, where they observed first-hand the immense gulf between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In 1959, Dr. King and Coretta spent nearly a month in India on a pilgrimage viewing sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964, she accompanied him to Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even prior to her husband’s public stand against the Vietnam War in 1967, Coretta functioned as liaison to peace and justice organizations, and as mediator to public officials on behalf of the marginalized.
After her husband’s assassination in 1968, Coretta devoted great energy and commitment to building The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, commonly known as the King Center, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The Center focuses on Nonviolent Social Change, as a living memorial to her husband’s life and dream. Situated in the Freedom Hall complex encircling Dr. King’s tomb, The King Center hosts over one million visitors a year. In 1969, she published My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.
Every year after the assassination of her husband in 1968, Coretta attended a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to mark his birthday on January 15th. She fought for many years to make it a national holiday. In 1972, she said “there should be at least one national holiday a year in tribute to an African-American man, “and, at this point, Martin is the best candidate we have.” On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
During her lifetime, Coretta led discussions with heads of states, prime ministers, and presidents. She participated in protests alongside working-class people from all races and different walks of life. She met with many great spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. She stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. She was a woman of wisdom, grace, compassion and vision. Coretta Scott King tried to make ours a better world and, in the process, made history.
On February 7, 2006, Coretta died in Rosarito, Mexico from complications due ovarian cancer. Many individuals and organizations paid tribute to Coretta following her death, including U.S. President George W. Bush, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Black Justice Coalition, and her alma mater Antioch College. She is buried alongside her husband in Atlanta, Georgia.
Awards and Tributes:
Coretta Scott King was the recipient of various honors and tributes both before and after her death. She received honorary degrees from many institutions, including Princeton University, Duke University, and Bates College.
1969- She was the recipient of the Universal Love Award, becoming the first non-Italian to hold the distinction.
1970- The American Library Association began awarding a medal named for Coretta Scott King to outstanding African-American writers and illustrators of children’s literature
1978- She was the recipient of the Lucretia Mott Award for showing dedication to the advancement of women and justice
1983- She was the recipient of the Four Freedom Award for the Freedom of Worship
1987- She was the recipient of the Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women
1997- She was the recipient of the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award.
2004- She was the recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize Award by the Government of India.
2004- She was honored by both of her alma maters, receiving a Horace Mann Award from Antioch College and an Outstanding Alumni Award from the New England Conservatory of Music.
2006- The Jewish National Fund, the organization that works to plant trees in Israel, announced the creation of the Coretta Scott King forest in the Galilee region of Northern Israel, with the purpose of “perpetuating her memory of equality and peace”, as well as the work of her husband.
2006- Super Bowl XL was dedicated to Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks. Both were memorialized with a moment of silence during the pregame ceremonies.
2007- The Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy (CSKYWLA) was opened in Atlanta, Georgia. It serves young girls grades 6-12.
2007- Antioch College opened The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom on its campus.
2009- She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
Written by Jasmine Y. Williams
Recreate Model: Jasmine Y. Williams
Recreate Photographer: Ciara Kelley
National Women’s History Musuem
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