civil rights activist; writer; singer
Born Coretta Scott, April 27,
1927, in Marion, AL; died January 30, 2006; daughter of Obadiah and
Bernice (McMurray) Scott; married Martin Luther King, Jr. (a Baptist
minister and civil rights leader), June 18, 1953 (died April 4, 1968);
children: Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, Bernice
Education: Antioch College, A.B. 1951; New England Conservatory of Music, Mus.B. 1954.
Council of Negro Women, Women's Strike for Peace, Women's International
League for Peace and Freedom, NAACP, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Concert singer, activist, lecturer, author.
Debuted as singer in Springfield, OH, 1948; delegate to White House
Conference on Children and Youth, 1960; Women's Strike for Peace
delegate to disarmament conference, Geneva, Switzerland, 1962; Morris
Brown College, Atlanta, GA, voice instructor, 1962; Martin Luther King,
Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., Atlanta, founding
president and chief executive officer, 1969--; Cable News Network,
Atlanta, commentator, 1980--. Board member, Southern Christian
On April 8, 1968, four days after her
husband, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was brutally
gunned down by assassin James Earl Ray on the balcony of a Memphis motel, Coretta Scott King flew to that city to take her husband's place at the head of the march for nonviolent
social change. After the march, King rose and eloquently addressed the
crowd, urging them to join with her in pursuing her husband's dream:
"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....
From this moment on we are going to go forward. We are going to
continue his work to make all people truly free and to make every
person feel that he is a human being."
Since that day King has
herself emerged as one of the most charismatic and forceful civil
rights leaders in the United States. She founded and serves as
president of the $10 million Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for
Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta; she also gave hundreds of speeches
everywhere from churches to college campuses, traveled the world over
to meet with international, national, and local leaders to discuss race
relations and human rights, written her autobiography, and edited a
book of Dr. King's quotations.
Coretta Scott was born April 27,
1927, into an America where--simply because of the color of their
skin--black people were often taught in impoverished,
segregated schools, denied access to hotels and restaurants and
hospitals, and beaten and imprisoned at the slightest real or imagined
offense. Coretta was the second of three children born to Obadiah
and Bernice Scott of Heiberger, Alabama, nine miles outside of Marion.
The Scotts raised their children on a farm that had been in their
family since the Civil War. Though it was rare for black people to own
land in the South at that time, the Scotts were not affluent. They were
especially hard hit economically during the Depression years of the
late 1920s and early 1930s. Coretta herself hoed and picked cotton to
earn money for the family. Obie Scott raised garden vegetables, hogs,
cows, and chickens on the farm and drove a taxi to supplement the
family income. When he invested his savings in a sawmill of his own, it mysteriously burned to the ground after just two weeks.
Disillusioned but undefeated,
Mr. Scott then became the first black man in his community ever to own
a truck. He hauled lumber, an occupation which brought him into direct
competition with white men, who grew more and more threatened by him as
the availability of jobs declined. He was frequently stopped on the
highway and harassed at gunpoint.
Nonetheless, he eventually opened a country store. Mr. Scott had a
sixth-grade education, which was considerable for a black man of his
generation, and according to her friend and biographer Octavia Vivian,
Coretta wondered later how much he might have achieved if he had the
opportunity to earn a high school diploma.
Coretta's mother, Bernice,
was the person from whom Coretta inherited both her musical talent and
her desire for an education. Though she had only a fourth-grade
education herself, Mrs. Scott insisted that her daughters attend
college even if each had only one dress to wear. Thanks to her
dedication and to some scholarship assistance, the Scotts were able to
send all three of their children to college at once. Coretta's older
was the first full-time black student ever to live on the campus of
Antioch College. (After two years there, however, Edythe transferred to
Ohio State University, which had a more racially diverse student body.)
Obie Leonard, Coretta's younger brother, became a minister after
attending Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, for two years.
unusually sensitive and intelligent child, Coretta learned early on to
recognize discrimination. Her first six years of education were spent
at the Crossroads School, a one-room frame schoolhouse
where just two teachers taught all six grades. Each day during the
five-mile walk from their home to Crossroads, Coretta and her sister
and brother were passed on the road by the school bus carrying the
white children to their school in Marion.
This experience, among
others, awakened in Coretta an awareness of racial injustices and a
sense of mission to end discrimination. She firmly believed herself
destined to some sort of work that would help to improve the condition
of oppressed people, especially those "black and deprived" as she had
been, she told Ebony.
For a long time King thought that
she would make her contribution through music. After graduating from
Crossroads at the top of her classes, King went on to Lincoln High
School in Marion, a private missionary school where, for the first
time, she encountered college-educated teachers, both black and white.
At Lincoln she began to develop her musical talent. She played the
trumpet and piano and sang in the chorus, appearing as a soloist
in a number of school recitals and musicals. Her high school music
teacher, Olive J. Williams, is credited with inspiring her to consider
music as a career.
Because Lincoln was ten miles away, Coretta
and the other black students from her area had to leave home early
Monday morning and could not return until the weekend. Coretta's
mother, displaying the same calm determination that has stood King
herself in good stead
throughout her public life, decided that the children should not have
to be away from home for such long stretches of time. She secured a bus
and every school day drove all of the children herself the ten miles
each way to and from school--an unheard-of activity for a woman in
In 1945, King graduated first in her high school
class and enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She had
been granted a partial scholarship by the college's Race Relations
Committee. Though she was at first anxious
about adjusting to the alien environment of the northern school and
about competing with the white students, who, on the whole, were better
prepared for higher education, she also realized the advantages of
attending college in the North: northern schools were generally
considered academically superior to those in the South. King decided to
major in elementary education and in music.
While at Antioch,
King participated in the college's challenging cooperative work-study
program, in which students alternated a period of work with a period of
study. As a work-study student she served the community in various
roles, including that of nursery school attendant, camp counselor,
and library assistant. Despite her earlier fears, she found most of her
many opportunities at Antioch rewarding and challenging. She apparently
did not encounter overt racial prejudice at the college until it came time for her to student teach.
Antioch's education students were placed in the Yellow Springs, Ohio
public school district to practice teach, but those schools had no
black teachers at that time. The supervisor of the program asked King
to agree either to travel nine miles away to an all-black school to
teach or to teach at the Antioch Demonstration School. Frustrated, King
decided to take a stand about her right to teach in the public schools,
regardless of her race.
She took her complaint all the way to the
president of the college, but to no avail. Even her fellow students
refused to support her, fearing that to do so would cost all of them
their practice-teaching positions and ultimately their degrees.
Bitterly disappointed to discover the shallowness of Antioch's
commitment to integration, King decided to accept the compromise
position at the Antioch Demonstration School and strengthened her
resolve to quietly but firmly resist racial injustices.
King's interest in music was growing. She added violin to her
repertoire of musical instruments and sang in the choir at the Second
Baptist Church in Springfield, Ohio, where she gave her first solo
concert in 1948. Concerts in Pennsylvania and Alabama followed, and she
began to consider continuing her musical education after college. The
chairman of the music department at Antioch encouraged her to apply to
Boston's New England Conservatory of Music and to the Smith Noyes
Foundation for fellowship support.
By the time she graduated in
June of 1951, King had been accepted at the conservatory. She decided
to give up her plans to become a teacher and to pursue a career on the
concert stage. Although her tuition
was fully covered by the fellowship, King still had to earn her room
and board. She had already arranged to rent a room in the home of a
wealthy Massachusetts family, contributors to a special interracial
scholarship fund. When she arrived in Boston, she further arranged to
clean the fifth floor of the house, which she shared with two other
students, and two stairways, in exchange for her bed and breakfast.
Without money for dinner, though, she was forced to survive on the
foods she could afford, like crackers,
peanut butter, and fruit. As biographer Vivian put it, King "was in the
unique position of living at one of the wealthiest addresses in America
her financial situation began to improve. The Urban League found her a
job as a file clerk at a mail-order firm, and after her first year, she
began receiving out-of-state aid from her homestate of Alabama. This
aid was provided for black students barred by segregation
from attending white institutions in-state. King studied voice with
retired opera star Marie Sundelius at the conservatory and also sang
with the chorus and the Old South Choir.
While King was studying
at the conservatory, another voice student introduced her to a young
minister from Atlanta who was studying for a doctorate in theology at
Boston University. Coretta Scott's first meeting with Martin Luther
King, Jr., went badly; he overwhelmed the rather reserved young woman
by hinting at marriage on that very first date. Nonetheless, they
continued to see each other. Coretta was impressed with King's drive
and his concern for the underprivileged.
His feelings seemed so similar to her own. But she wondered if--with
his solidly middle-class background--he could ever really understand
the poverty he hoped to help alleviate.
Moreover, as he continued to press her about marriage, she was forced
to wrestle with the thought of giving up her dream of becoming a
In the end, King and Scott's many similarities won out over their differences. Both had been precocious children, voracious readers, and excellent students. Both had fathers whose willingness
to stand up for justice for blacks in the South had impressed their
children deeply. Scott and King were married on the lawn of Coretta's
parents' home in Heiberger by the Reverend King, Sr., on June 18, 1953.
After the wedding, the couple returned to Boston to complete their
educations. King was then offered positions at two Northern churches,
two Southern churches, and three schools. They chose to accept the
pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama,
and moved there in September of 1954.
On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress
named Rosa Parks sat down in the first row reserved for black people at
the back of a public bus in Montgomery. She had worked all day and was
tired. When the bus pulled up to the Empire Theater stop, a crowd of
white people boarded. Following the laws and customs of the segregated
South, the bus driver stood up and asked the black people to move
further toward the back of the bus. Three other people moved
immediately, but Rosa Parks remained in her seat. When she refused once
again to move, a policeman was summoned, and she was arrested for defying segregation laws. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the Montgomery bus boycott
in protest, and the civil rights movement was born. A year later, as a
result of the phenomenally successful boycott, the Supreme Court
declared Alabama's bus segregation laws unconstitutional.
Kings' first child, Yolanda Denise, fondly nicknamed "Yoki" by her
father, had been born just two weeks before the beginning of the
boycott in 1955. The couple went on to have three more children. As Dr.
King became more and more deeply involved in his nonviolent civil
rights crusade, the burden of raising the children as well as a great
deal of administrative work for the movement fell to Coretta. She
handled the mail and phone calls from his office in their home,
including the increasing number of threats on her husband's life.
Robert Johnson, in a 1991 article for Jet, recalled an anecdote once related by Martin Luther King about his wife: their phone had rung in the middle of the night. A sleepy Coretta picked it up to hear an angry voice on the other end of the line snarl: "I want to speak to that nigger who's running the bus boycott!" Calmly she replied, "My husband is asleep
and does not wish to be disturbed. He told me to write the name and
number of anyone who called to threaten his life so that he could
return the call in the morning when he wakes up fresh." Indeed, King
remained outwardly calm even when her husband was actually stabbed at a book signing in New York City by a black woman who was later institutionalized for mental incompetence.
Splitting her time in the city between his hospital room and a
temporary office that was set up for her there, King maintained the
smooth operation of the civil rights movement.
King's grace under
pressure did not desert her even when the family's home in Montgomery
was bombed. She, a friend from church, and Yolanda, then an infant,
were the only ones home at the time of the incident, and no one was
hurt. But from that moment on, King was acutely aware of the constant
danger they faced. The harassment, the jailings, the bombings, and the
all of them. King realized that she could never find a way to live with
such terror; she could either turn her back on their life's work, or banish
the fear. She claimed in her autobiography that from then on she lived
without fear but held onto the knowledge that death could come to any
one of them because of their work to end racial injustice.
this time King also pursued a number of activities independent of her
husband's work. Aside from fulfilling the speaking engagements that he
could not keep, she taught voice in the music department of Morris
Brown College in Atlanta, where they had moved in 1960, when Martin
assumed the co-pastorate of the Ebenezer Baptist Church alongside his
father. In addition, King was a Women's Strike for Peace delegate at
the Disarmament Conference attended by representatives of seventeen
nations and held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962. Moreover, she made
use of her artistic talents by developing and performing in the Freedom
Concert, which featured readings, music, and poetry narrating the
history of the civil rights movement. Proceeds from the very successful
program were contributed to the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, of which Dr. King was then head.
When Martin Luther
King, Jr., was assassinated in April of 1968, his wife's commitment to
civil rights faced its most severe trial yet. She was, however, better
prepared for such a loss than most people would be, both because of her
strong religious faith and because she had long ago confronted the
dangers inherent in her husband's work. In the days and weeks that
followed his death, she calmed the anger and despair
of King followers and urged recommitment to the philosophy of
nonviolence. She walked in his place at marches and spoke at civil
rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies. Gradually she came to be seen as
the worthy successor to Dr. King and a leader and symbol of the civil
In 1969 she announced plans for the creation of
the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in
King's hometown of Atlanta. In the decades since the assassination, she
has worked tirelessly to raise funds for the complex, which began in
the basement of her home in Atlanta but now covers three full blocks
near the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The center houses offices, Dr. King's
elevated marble crypt surrounded by a 100-foot long reflecting pool, and the Freedom Hall meeting facility, containing a 3000-seat auditorium, conference rooms, a cultural center, and the King Library and Archives. One and a half million visitors stroll
down the arch-covered Freedom Walk each year. The center has an annual
budget of $3.2 million and employs more than 60 people. Its library
serves five thousand scholars annually, who come to peruse
the more than one million documents of the civil rights movement held
there, including the personal papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By
1995, King had stepped down as chairman and CEO of the King Center,
passing the job to her youngest son, Dexter King.
The King Center
also sponsors programs in voter education and registration, literacy,
the performing arts, early childhood education, and internships for
college students from around the world who come to learn effective
means of nonviolent social protest. A Federal Bureau of Prisons
Project, which is a conflict-resolution training program for prison
personnel, a Single Parents Program providing job training, housing
assistance, and counseling services, and a Black Family Project, which
studies the crises facing black families and coordinates resources to alleviate them, are among the innovative programs the center offers.
addition, the center launched the petition campaign in favor of making
Dr. King's birthday a national holiday. The drive for a holiday began
soon after his death and was led by a coalition of black leaders,
legislators, and entertainers. Six million signatures were collected
and presented to U.S. Congress. After a decade and a half of
demonstrations, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, speeches, and
marches--including one attended by several hundred thousand people
commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Dr. King's March on
Washington--the holiday proponents finally won out. On November 2,
1983, under pressure from black politicians in his own party,
then-President Ronald Reagan finally signed the bill designating the
third Monday in January as the King Holiday, beginning in 1986.
1983, King coordinated the Coalition of Conscience, which sponsored the
20th Anniversary March on Washington. In 1985, she was arrested along
with three of her children at the South African embassy in Washington,
D.C., in a protest against apartheid.
In 1987, she was one of the leaders in the "Mobilization Against Fear
and Intimidation" in Forsyth County, Ga. In 1988, she re-convened the
Coalition of Conscience for the 25th Anniversary March on Washington.
She was in the news again in 1997, calling for a new trial for her
husband's convicted killer, James Earl Ray, who died the following year
in prison without receiving a new trial. King was among those who
believed that Ray was not the true killer, instead adhering to the
conspiracy theory that a government intelligence agency committed the
crime and used him as a patsy to cover it up.
As evidenced by her
support for reform in South Africa, King has supported civil rights and
freedom for people the world over. In March 2004, while speaking at the
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, King spoke out in support of
the right of same-sex couples to marry. The issue had come to a head in
the early months of 2004, with same-sex couples lining up outside
courthouses across the country asking to be legally married in civil
ceremonies. She called it a civil rights issue.
In the mid-to
late-1990s, the King family drew sharp criticism for their handling of
the center and King's legacy, at the core of which was a feud with the
National Park Service over a proposed visitors center across the street
from the King center. The King family planned to open an interactive
museum and felt the Park Service plan would interfere. The two sides
came to an agreement, and the Park Service opened their facility in
1996, but the King family did not go forward with their ideas. By 1999,
the King family was again under fire for maintaining tight control over
the Martin Luther King, Jr., image and his works, as well as for
reaping generous profits off of the rights. But neither King nor her
son would comment on any such controversy.
On January 30, 2006,
King passed away in her sleep. She was 78 and had been in failing
health since suffering a stroke and heart attack in August of 2005.
King had appeared at a Martin Luther King Day dinner on Jan. 14, 2006,
but did not speak.
King was the recipient of numerous awards,
including the Dag Hammarskjold Award, 1969; the UAW Social Justice
Award, 1980; and the Eugene V. Debs award, 1982. She was awarded more
than 40 honorary degrees by academic institutions. She was the author
of three books, and wrote a nationally syndicated column. She also
served as the head of the delegation of the "Women for a Meaningful
Summit" in Athens, Greece, and the "Soviet-American Women's Summit" in
Washington, D.C., in anticipation of the Reagan-Gorbachov talks. Among
the dozens of committees she founded or served on are Black Leadership
Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation, and the
Black Leadership Roundtable. In her honor, the American Library
Association's Social Responsibilities Round Table each year recognizes
distinguished contributions to children's literature by awarding its
Coretta Scott King Award to deserving African-Americans.
National Council on Negro Women Annual
Brotherhood Award, 1957; Louise Waterman Wise Award, 1963; Myrtle
Wreath Award, Cleveland Hadassah, 1965; Wateler Peace Prize, 1968; Dag
Hammerskjoeld Award, 1969; Pacem in Terris award, International
Overseas Service Foundation, 1969; Premi Antonio Feltrinelli, 1969, for
exceptional display of high moral valor; Leadership for Freedom Award,
Roosevelt University, 1971; Martin Luther King Memorial Medal, College
of the City of New York, 1971; Eugene V. Debs Award, 1982; Freedom
Award, National Civil Rights Museum, 1991; Frontrunner Award, Sara Lee
Corporation, 1996; humanitarian award, Martin Luther King Jr. State
Holiday Commission, 1999; numerous honorary degrees.
- (Editor) King, Martin Luther, Jr., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Newmarket Press, 1983.
- My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Holt, 1969.
- King, Coretta Scott, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Holt, 1969.
- Vivian, Octavia, Coretta: The Story of Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fortress, 1970.
- Ebony, January 1980; August 1982; January 1986; January 1987; January 1990; January 1991.
February 5, 1981; September 19, 1983; November 7, 1983; November 21,
1983; July 15, 1985; January 20, 1986; May 8, 1989; January 21, 1991.
- New York Times, January 31, 2006.
- University of Rhode Island Pacer, September 2000. Available from http://advance.uri.edu/pacer/september2000/story2.htm.
- CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/01/31/obit.king/index.html (January 31, 2006).
- USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-03-24-king-marriage_x.htm (March 24, 2004).
— Susan M. Marren