Coretta Scott King
April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006
Notable: Activist & Author
Coretta Scott was born in Heiberger, Alabama to Obadiah “Obie” and Bernice McMurray Scott. She lived a relatively comfortable life as her parents were independent entrepreneurs who operated a successful farm and several other businesses. But, given the times, Scott was still affected by segregation and racism. For example, her father owned and operated a lumber mill that was burned down in retaliation for his refusal to sell the mill to a White businessman.
Scott’s parents had a strong desire for their children to be well-educated. Due to segregation, the nearest school for Black children was five miles away which required the children to walk as school buses were only made available to White students. Undeterred, Scott proved to be a great student and followed in her mother’s footsteps by showing early musical talent.
She went on to graduate in 1945 as the valedictorian of Lincoln High School and enrolled at Antioch College from which she earned a BA in music. While at Antioch she became involved with the civil rights movement and was an active member of the NAACP as well as other organizations. Her college experience would shape her views and have a tremendous impact on her commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.
After being awarded a fellowship to continue her education, Scott moved to Boston, Massachusetts to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. It was during this time that she met a young doctoral student that she would eventually date but it wasn’t an immediate love connection. Her first impression was that he was rather short and she was uncertain about dealing with the constraints of being a pastor’s wife.
In 1953, Coretta Scott married the doctoral student, Martin Luther King, Jr., on the lawn of her family’s home. A weird fact is that due to segregation there were no hotel rooms available for Black people. As a result, the couple spent their first night as newlyweds in the backroom of a funeral parlor.
With her studies completed and King accepting a position as pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Over the course of the next 15 years, much of Scott King’s time would be dedicated to raising the couple’s four children. But, contrary to popular opinion she remained actively involved in the struggle for civil rights.
As the Movement gained steam and Dr. King rose in prominence, Scott King had to deal with threatening phone calls but she remained steadfast even after their home was bombed while she and their newborn were in the house. She participated in many of the key campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement and traveled extensively with Dr. King. But, her husband being a leader in the movement didn’t stop her from speaking out against sexist attempts to sideline female activists.
Scott King helped to provide financial support for the Movement by performing in benefit concerts. She was involved in the nuclear disarmament movement dating back to at least the late 1950s and was an early and vocal opponent to the war in Vietnam which caused her to be placed under surveillance by the FBI. Keeping in step with the mission of the Civil Rights Movement but working more broadly, Scott King collaborated with many peace and justice organizations and was a fierce advocate for women’s rights.
Following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, Scott King returned to Memphis a few days later to stand-in for Dr. King at the Sanitation Workers March. She later attended an anti-Vietnam War rally and helped to organize the Poor People’s Campaign on Dr. King’s behalf. While she continued to represent Dr. King at events, Scott King would also launch a campaign to commemorate his legacy.
The Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change was founded shortly after Dr. King’s murder. And with Scott King’s guidance and organizing a new complex was built for the Center in 1981. Her lobbying and public speaking led to the creation of a national holiday in Dr. King’s honor.
Coretta Scott King not only cemented the legacy of Dr. King but built an independent and expanded legacy of her own. Her support of Black power led to her becoming an important organizer of the 1972 Black Political Convention. And in the midst of all this activity, she still managed to participate in protests against South African apartheid and continued her work for women’s rights.
Although she would step down as leader of the King Center in the 90s her commitment to advocacy and activism continued. Ignoring the opinions of civil rights leaders and her children, she openly spoke out in support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. She also denounced the invasion of Iraq leading up to the second Iraq War.
In 2005, Coretta Scott King had a heart attack and stroke, and her health was further compromised by ovarian cancer. She died six months later on January 30th, 2006.
- “About Mrs. King.” 2021. The King Center. January 6, 2021. https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/about-mrs-king/.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Coretta Scott King.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 14, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/coretta-scott-king.
- “Coretta Scott King.” 2021. Academy of Achievement. January 26, 2021. https://achievement.org/achiever/coretta-scott-king/.
- “King, Coretta Scott.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. April 11, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/king-coretta-scott.
- Norwood, Arlisha R. 2017. “Coretta Scott King.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/coretta-scott-king.
- Theoharis, Jeanne. 2018. “’I Am Not a Symbol, I Am an Activist’: the Untold Story of Coretta Scott King.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. February 3, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/03/coretta-scott-king-extract.
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