She is most notable as the wife of the one of the most iconic Civil Rights figures in the world, but Coretta Scott King’s legacy can stand all on its own.
A leader in her own right, Scott King was an author, an activist and advocate. Long after the death of her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she continued to fight for equal rights for all.
Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927 in Marion, Alabama. She was the third of four children born to Obadiah and Bernice Scott, two upwardly mobile African Americans in that town at the time (her mom worked as a school bus driver and church musician and her father was a businessman). Scott and her siblings attended a one-room elementary school five miles from their home and later, Lincoln Normal High School, the closest Black high school to where they lived.
From there, she graduated as valedictorian and with a love of music that she would later carry into her advocacy. Scott attended Antioch College in Ohio with a scholarship from the Interracial Scholarship Fund, an entity that aimed to diversify Antioch College. There, she joined the Antioch Chapter of the NAACP.
Scott transferred out of Antioch when she won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It was while studying singing at that school with Marie Sundelius that she met Martin Luther King, Jr. The couple married in June of 1953 and had four children, while working inside of the Civil Rights Movement.
Things weren’t always blissful with the couple, however. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover released tapes of MLK’s alleged affairs with other women as a way to discredit him and the movement. Scott stood by her husband though, and continued to fight alongside him.
But, Scott criticized the sexism of the Civil Rights Movement in January 1966 in New Lady magazine, saying in part, “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.”
Martin Luther King Jr. himself limited Coretta’s role in the movement and expected her to be a housewife. Scott participated in a Women Strike for Peace protest in January 1968, at the capital of Washington, D.C., with over five thousand women. In honor of the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, the group was called the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. Coretta co-chaired the Congress of Women conference with Pearl Willen and Mary Clarke.
Scott’s life changed drastically in April 1968 when her husband was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee shortly before a sanitation workers’ strike was to take place. Scott headed that march herself on April 8, 1968. During a speech days after her husband’s death, Scott spoke about her husband’s views and told the audience that King was dead but “his spirit would never die.”
She approached the African-American entertainer and activist, Josephine Baker to take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Baker declined after thinking it over, stating that her twelve adopted children (known as the “rainbow tribe”) were “…too young to lose their mother.” Shortly after that, King decided to take the helm of the movement herself.
Scott eventually broadened her focus to include women’s rights, LGBT rights, economic issues, world peace, and various other causes. As early as December 1968, she called for women to “unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war,” during a Solidarity Day speech.
On April 27, 1968, King spoke at an anti-war demonstration in Central Park in place of her husband. King made it clear that there was no reason “why a nation as rich as ours should be blighted by poverty, disease and illiteracy.”
Scott eventually founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, consisting of several buildings in Atlanta, Georgia, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized and both his father, Martin Luther King Sr., and he were pastors.
Every year after the assassination of her husband, Scott attended a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church to mark his birthday on Jan. 15. She fought for years to make it a national holiday. She was finally successful in this campaign in 1986 when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was made a federal holiday.
According to thekingcenter.org, Scott has been considered one of the most “influential African American leaders of our time.” She received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities; authored three books and a nationally-syndicated newspaper column; and served with and helped found dozens of organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation and the Black Leadership Roundtable.
During her lifetime, Mrs. King dialogued with heads of state, including prime ministers and presidents, as well as participated in protests alongside rank-and-file working people of all races. She met with many great spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
She witnessed the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and 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.
“A woman of wisdom, compassion and vision, Coretta Scott King tried to make ours a better world and, in the process, made history,” said a King Center spokesperson.
Scott suffered a heart attack and stroke in the summer of 2005. Six months later, while seeking treatment for ovarian cancer in Mexico, she died of complications. She was 78-years-old.
Her funeral was held on February 7, 2006 at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, eulogized by daughter Bernice King. The televised service lasted eight hours and had over 14,000 people in attendance, including U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, along with most of their wives. Barack Obama, then a senator, was also present.