Coretta Scott King was most famous for being the wife of one of the key leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr.
Considered the “First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement,” Coretta Scott King was not a woman meant for the sidelines. She was a strong advocate for the rights of all African Americans and other minorities, the rights of women, and was a strong advocate for world peace and improving the economy.
She helped her husband to lead the Civil Rights Movement. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta carried on the legacy of advocating for the rights of women and minorities and became highly influential both in the United States and worldwide.
Coretta Scott King’s Background and Early Life
Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927, right before the Great Depression. She tried to help her family financially while growing up by picking cotton.
Coretta was known for being very determined, and aimed to be good at everything she tried to do. Coretta’s parents, despite not being particularly wealthy and not having any form of higher education, stated that it was important for them that all of their children received an education.
Coretta’s mother stated,
My children are going to college, even if it means I only have but one dress to put on.
She graduated from high school as the valedictorian of her class and was accepted into Antioch College in Ohio. The college was known for giving minority students full-ride scholarships so that they could try to make the college more diverse.
She then went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she won a scholarship. Coretta was a very talented singer and that is the career path that she wished to pursue. While she did not end up becoming a singer, Coretta did incorporate a lot of music into the political work that she did.
Coretta also was very active in political movements for equality. She joined the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Coretta Scott King’s Student Life and Meeting Martin Luther King
While Coretta was a student in Boston, she met her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr. His father had told Coretta that she would not be able to pursue a career in singing were she to become King’s wife, because of the fact that it would not be suitable for the wife of a Baptist minister, which is what King was aspiring to be.
Despite this, the two married in 1953, and one of the most intriguing parts of their wedding was the fact that Coretta had removed the part of the vows where she was to promise that she would obey her husband. This was unusual for the times they were living in.
When she graduated from college with a degree in voice and piano, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, which is where their story as political leaders began.
Martin Luther King was elected to be the leader of the protest movement during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was when Coretta claimed that she realized she had a huge calling in life, to be part of this movement for equality.
Coretta Scott King and the Civil Rights Movement
Martin Luther King, Jr. became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
This meant that Coretta was no longer able to become a singer, which is the career that she dreamed of having. Instead, Coretta chose to completely devote herself to the cause of rights for African Americans, which was very inspirational for many women in the movement and symbolized many of the similar actions other African American women took at the time.
When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, Martin Luther King was threatened many times, and Coretta had received many phone calls where people would threaten him.
Their house was even fired upon, but no one was hurt. In 1956, their home was bombed, and when Coretta’s family threatened to take Coretta and their daughter, Yolanda, to the town where Coretta grew up, Coretta outright refused.
This was when Coretta said that she realized how important she was to Martin, and that day she lost her fear of death, as she fully committed herself to the movement. The couple realized that the most effective and Christian way of protesting was to conduct nonviolent protests.
In 1960, Martin Luther King was imprisoned, and Coretta feared that he would not make it out of jail alive. She expressed these fears to her friend, Harris Wofford, who got into contact with Sargent Shriver while he was in Chicago, which was where then-candidate John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the US presidency.
Shriver told Kennedy that he should call Coretta and told her that he was concerned about what had happened to her husband. It is believed that this also had an impact on Kennedy’s victory.
Coretta worked very hard to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She also was a part of many marches and protests, including one which left a huge impression on her father, as it involved both Caucasian people and African Americans chanting the name of Martin Luther King.
Coretta was also highly critical of the fact that the Civil Rights Movement did not focus as much on the role of women. She stated that women were essentially the backbone of the entire movement. She took part in the Women Strike for Peace protest in Washington, D.C., where over five thousand women participated. She also was one of the co-chairs of the Congress of Women conference.
Aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with his death was how she would break the news to her children, and she hoped that after his funeral, her children would somehow understand what had happened.
Coretta Scott King and several other members of the King family believed that his assassination was an inside job carried out by the FBI.
She became the center of America’s attention, and obtained many friends who were in the higher ranks, including Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
After his assassination, Coretta focused on advocating for the rights of many people, including African Americans and women. She also was very passionate about world peace and other economic issues. She thought that it was unacceptable for racism, poverty, and war to take place in American society.
Coretta Scott King wanted to make sure that there was a holiday for an African American man, and she said that the best option was her husband, and she began to campaign for the introduction of a holiday in his honor. A federal holiday was established in honor of Martin Luther King starting in 1986.
She also was very outspoken about the topic of apartheid in South Africa, and attended a protest at the South African Embassy in D.C., where she, her daughter, and her son were all arrested.
She was also a huge advocate for pacifism, and was even considered to be even more dedicated to the cause of world peace than Martin Luther. She was against the invasion of Iraq which took place in 2003, and was also against capital punishment.
Coretta created the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where she was the president and chief executive officer. The center was dedicated to continuing the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Afterwards, she gave the positions of president and CEO to her son, Dexter Scott King. Because of the center, Martin Luther King’s tomb became memorialized.
Awards of Coretta Scott King
- Coretta was greatly honored throughout the course of her life. She was given several honorary degrees from different colleges and universities, including Bates College, Princeton University, and Duke University.
- She also received awards from both colleges she attended, Antioch College and the New England Conservatory of Music.
- She is also commemorated through the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, which are given to authors and illustrators of African American background who respect the African American culture and universal human values.
- She was also posthumously conducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
- In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King was killed, she wrote the book, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.
End of Her Life
Coretta Scott King died from respiratory failure that was associated with ovarian cancer on January 30, 2006. She suffered a stroke in the previous year, which as a result, left her right side paralyzed and she was unable to speak any longer.
When she died, over 10,000 people attended her funeral. Most notably, four of the five living American presidents were in attendance. She was buried next to Martin Luther King Jr., and flags were lowered to half-staff that day.
She also lay in the Georgia State Capitol, and was the first African American in history to do so.
Coretta Scott King is one of the most influential women in American, particularly African American, history.
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