Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)
Photography by: Moneta J. Sleet
At the 2005 King Celebration in Atlanta, a Musical Tribute to Corretta Scott King was presented, which you may listen to here. The Tribute was performed by the Morehouse and Spelman college choirs, along with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
It would have been easy to label Coretta Scott King just a wife, but it would have missed the mark. Before she married the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Alabama-born Coretta Scott had established herself as politically and socially conscious young woman. Formally educated at Antioch College in Ohio and at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, she was an anti-war activist who rallied fellow students against violence and was a delegate to a political convention. She was an accomplished classical singer.
During the civil rights movement, she marched alongside her husband and sang to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he co-founded. After her husband’s death in 1968, Coretta King emerged as an important activist in her own right. She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and led the fight to make her husband’s birthday a national holiday. Yet she also was known as a loving mother who reared four children alone. She instilled in them a reverence for the ideals their father espoused, as well as an independence to chart their own courses, even if it challenged long-standing ideals of who or what they should be.
She became an international advocate for peace and human rights. She met with presidents and world leaders and was arrested fighting against apartheid. And well into her 70s, she traveled the globe to speak against racial and economic injustice, promote the rights of the powerless and poor, and advocate religious freedom, full employment, health care, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and AIDS awareness.
Coretta Scott King, 78, of Atlanta, died late Monday at a holistic hospital in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, about 17 miles south of San Diego. “Mrs. King’s lasting contributions to freedom and equality have made America a better and more compassionate nation,” President Bush said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “Laura and I were fortunate to have known Mrs. King, and we will always treasure the time we spent with her. We send our condolences and prayers to the entire King family.”
Despite her physical struggles — friends and family members said her last days were painful — she made a surprise appearance last month during the King Center’s annual Salute to Greatness awards dinner in downtown Atlanta. She was wheeled into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, triggering a standing ovation. She smiled, waved and kissed family members, but she did not speak. It would be her last public appearance.
For many, Coretta King was the closest thing possible to African-American royalty, from the regal way she carried herself to how others perceived her. Her image froze in the public’s consciousness thanks to a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken at her husband’s funeral. Beneath her black veil, she seemed dignified and stoic even as she consoled her grief-stricken 5-year-old daughter, Bernice.
But for a public figure, she was an intensely private person. She picked her friends carefully and didn’t not venture out in public without being swamped by admirers. That, said some who didn’t know her, made her appear aloof, but friends say Coretta King was warm, kind and considerate, someone who loved to laugh, never said a bad thing about anybody, and spent hours on the phone late into the night, talking with friends and family.
To link Coretta King’s life to that of her husband’s is inevitable, especially in light of the work she had done to protect, maintain and enhance his legacy. While his 1968 assassination brought an end to their marriage after only 15 years, Coretta King never remarried and spent her last 38 years creating her own legacy.
Immediately after her husband’s death, she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, eventually locating it on Atlanta’s historic Auburn Avenue in the neighborhood where he grew up. She also worked for more than 15 years to get her husband’s birthday established as a national holiday. Celebrated on the third Monday in January, King Day is the only national holiday honoring an individual American.
Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, in Marion, Ala., to Bernice McMurry Scott and Obadiah Scott, who farmed his own land and owned a truck, which he used to haul logs and timber for the local sawmill. Bernice Scott was a homemaker. Marion’s rural setting exposed Coretta King to the injustices of racism and segregation. Although her family was not poor, she joined hired hands picking cotton in the fields of rural Marion. “If you made four or five dollars in the course of a season, that was pretty good money in those Depression days. I remember one special year when I made seven dollars picking cotton,” Coretta King wrote in her 1969 autobiography, My Life With Martin Luther King Jr. “I was always very strong, and I made a very good cotton picker. Martin used to tease me about it, years later, saying that was why he had married me. He would say, ‘If you hadn’t met me, you’d still be down there picking cotton!“
She also knew hardship. While white neighbors rode a bus to a nearby school, she walked five miles to the one-room Crossroads School for blacks. “When I was very young and growing up, I was protected from the extreme hardships of segregation though I was always aware of being deprived of the rights to which I was entitled,” Coretta King wrote. But she did well in school, excelled in music, and became the valedictorian of Lincoln High School’s class of 1945. She accepted a scholarship to the Quaker-influenced Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and quickly took an interest in the civil rights movement.
She joined both the Antioch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the college’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties committees. In 1948, she was a delegate to the founding convention of the Young Progressives organization. “From the first, I had been determined to get ahead, not just for myself, but to do something for my people and for all people,” Coretta King wrote in her 1969 autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. After graduating from Antioch in 1951 with a degree in music, she accepted a scholarship to continue her musical training at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
MEETING DR. KING
In Boston, she met Martin Luther King Jr., a young Boston University theology student studying for his doctorate. Martin King asked a mutual friend for her phone number. When he called her, he identified himself as, “M.L. King Jr.” Upon meeting for lunch the next day, Coretta King wrote, “My first thought was, ‘How short he seems,’ and the second was, ‘How unimpressive he looks.’ “
Things quickly changed over lunch. “I still remember everything I was wearing that day… Martin looked at me very carefully. At the time, I was wearing bangs that had a natural wave, and my hair was long. He liked that and said so,” she wrote. “In those few minutes I had forgotten about Martin being short and had completely revised my first impression. He radiated charm. When he talked, he grew in stature. … I knew immediately that he was special.” They were married on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parent’s house in a ceremony conducted by his father.
After Coretta King received a degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory, the young couple moved to Montgomery in September 1954 when Martin Luther King Jr. was named pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Having traveled the country and studied in Boston, Coretta King was not eager to return South, especially to Alabama. “Having come from a town in Alabama only about 80 miles from Montgomery, I knew the situation there only too well,” she wrote. “I knew, from my own life, that in this city, living in its memories of its glory as the first capital of the Confederacy, the stifling hood of segregation at its worst soon would drop over us. I also felt that Montgomery would offer me little opportunity or challenge in pursuing my musical interests.”
Within 15 months of their arrival, the couple—now with an infant daughter, Yolanda— found themselves thrust into events that led to the modern civil rights movement. On Dec. 1, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. At 26, the movement chose Martin Luther King Jr. as its leader. Coretta King has said it was an exciting time for the young couple because they were leading a life of purpose.
On the evening of Jan. 30, 1956, while Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking at Ralph David Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the family home in Montgomery. In her autobiography, Coretta King wrote that she was sitting in her house with a friend and daughter Yolanda when they heard a loud thump on the porch. She had been anticipating an attack and tried to run to the back of the house. “We moved fast—not through the hall, which would have taken us near the sound, but straight back through the guest bedroom,” she wrote. “We were in the middle of it when there was a thunderous blast. Then smoke and the sound of breaking glass.” She, the friend and baby Yolanda narrowly escaped injury. “I think Coretta Scott King is the quintessential woman that has been far underrated in terms of her contributions,” one civil-rights leader said Tuesday. “People talk about Dr. King, but it was Dr. King and Coretta King. When they bombed the house it was Coretta’s house. She was home. He wasn’t even there.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in Montgomery catapulted him to national prominence and made him the de-facto leader of black America throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Often Coretta King, in her cat glasses, was right by his side at marches and rallies, including the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. In 1957, she and her husband traveled to Ghana to mark that country’s independence. In 1958, they traveled to Mexico and witnessed the wide gulf — similar to that in America — between extreme wealth and desperate poverty. In 1959, the couple spent a month in India on a pilgrimage of sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964, she was by her husband’s side in Oslo, Norway, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. She said they were both surprised that he got the award. He donated all of the money from the prize to civil rights groups.
In the 1960s, as her husband grew in stature, so did Coretta King. She conceived and performed a series of critically acclaimed Freedom Concerts, combining poetry, narration and music to tell the story of the civil rights movement and raise funds for the SCLC. Coretta King served as a Women’s Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1962, and spoke out against the Vietnam War before her husband did.
Mrs. King has said that her anti-war views were rooted in her religious beliefs and that she became an activist in college. “It is my faith that first made me a good candidate for pacifism,” she once said. “There were a number of young men who became conscientious objectors. We organized ourselves as students in support of them.”
Later, it was Martin King’s stance on the Vietnam War that started some shifting of political opinion against him, as critics and some supporters argued that he should remain focused solely on civil rights. She was a liaison to international peace and justice organizations even before her husband took a public stand against the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. In June 1965, she addressed an anti-war rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. On her husband’s last birthday, Jan. 15, 1968, while he was in Atlanta planning the Poor People’s Campaign, she was at an anti-war rally in Washington.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
On April 4, 1968, having just returned from taking daughter Yolanda Easter shopping, Coretta King was informed that her husband had been shot in Memphis while helping sanitation workers. Coretta King wrote that while she was shocked, she was not all together surprised: “It hit me hard … that the call I seemed subconsciously to have been waiting for all our lives had come.” When she arrived at the Atlanta airport, her husband’s secretary and Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen told her he’d died. “Of course, I already knew. But it had not yet been said, ” she wrote. “I had been trying to prepare myself to hear that final word, to think and accept—I was trying to make myself believe that Martin was dead.”
In the days following Dr. King’s death — and the day before his funeral — Mrs. King did make it to Memphis, where she led a march of 50,000 people through the streets. When she returned to Atlanta, she was captured for the world in the single-image of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Moneta J. Sleet. Where at the beginning of their journey as a couple, she held her oldest child, Yolanda, while their home was bombed, now she was quietly holding their youngest, Bernice. The black veil hardly masks her grief.
She was a mixture of regal bearing and grace and an uncompromising freedom fighter and people often had a hard time reconsiling her two sides. They saw her in her regality and aura and didn’t realize that in her heart was a woman who believed what her husband fought for. She didn’t walk behind her husband, she walked beside him.
After her husband’s death, she devoted her energy to fulfilling his work. She became an international figure of peace, justice and tolerance, meeting with religious figures such as Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. She was invited by President Bill Clinton to witness the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords. She stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
In 1974, as co-chair of the Full Employment Action Council, she formed a broad coalition of more than 100 religious, labor, business, civil and women’s rights organizations dedicated to a national policy of full employment and equal economic opportunity. In 1983, she brought together more than 800 human rights organizations to form the umbrella group, Coalition of Conscience; in 1985 Coretta King and three of her children were arrested at the South African embassy in Washington for protesting against apartheid; in 1987, she helped lead a national Mobilization Against Fear and Intimidation in Forsyth County; in 1988 she served as head of the U.S. delegation of Women for a Meaningful Summit in Athens, Greece; and in 1990, she was co-convener of the Soviet-American Women’s Summit in Washington.
Only months after her husband’s death, she created the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a living memorial to his life and dream. In 1981, after more than a decade of fund-raising and temporary housing, the center, with her husband’s crypt as its centerpiece, opened to the public. It is within the 23-acre national historic site that includes Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his father were pastors. As founding president, chair and CEO of the King Center, Coretta King worked to provide local, national and international programs in an attempt to train thousands of people in her husband’s philosophy and methods.
Perhaps Coretta King’s greatest legacy will be her successful campaign to establish the third Monday in January as a holiday honoring her husband, the country’s only national holiday recognizing an American citizen. “When Martin was assassinated, I called her to get her approval to get the Martin Luther King Holiday bill, because I didn’t want to do it without her knowledge and support and she agreed,” U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in an interview last August. Four days after Dr. King’s death, he submitted the first legislation to commemorate the Rev. King’s birthday. “She was very instrumental in getting the holiday approved. Only she could do that.”
President Ronald Reagan opposed the King holiday on fiscal grounds, arguing that giving federal workers a 10th annual holiday would cost the government about $225 million in lost wages alone. But he signed it into law Nov. 2, 1983. “All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition this nation gives is bestowed on Martin Luther King Jr.,” Coretta King said in remarks delivered after Mr. Reagan handed her the pen he used to sign the legislation. ”He symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest, and what was best. His non-violent campaign brought about redemption, reconciliation and justice.”
The first national observance of the holiday took place in 1986 and his birthday is now marked by annual celebrations in more than 100 countries. At the first official celebration of the holiday on Jan. 20, 1986 at Ebenezer, then-Vice President George Bush stood in for President Reagan. Rosa Parks, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D- Mass.) also attended.
In 2005, Coretta King’s legendary drive and stamina started to wane. A heart condition slowed her down and led to at least three strokes. The last one, which struck her on Aug. 16, severly weakened the right side of her body and left her unable to speak. Among her first words during recovery was “I love you,” whenever she saw any of her children. Even before she recovered her speech, she could do one of the things she truly loved – sing.
When the Kings returned to Atlanta after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize Award in 1964, city leaders held a banquet in Martin Luther King Jr.’s honor at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel. It would be one of the first times that blacks and whites of all classes in Atlanta openly mingled and ate together at such a major event. At the end of the evening, the group of 1,500 held hands and sang We Shall Overcome. “It was tremendously moving—the spirit of it,” Coretta King wrote. “We had overcome a major barrier for a southern city. We felt, for that night at least, it was really ‘black and white together’ in Atlanta.”
Coretta King received honorary doctorates from more than 60 colleges and universities; wrote three books and a nationally syndicated column; and served on and helped found dozens of organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation and the Black Leadership Roundtable. The Coretta Scott King Award is presented annually by the American Library Association to a black author and a black illustrator for their outstanding inspirational and educational contributions published during the previous year.