Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), most widely known as the wife and widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., carried on his vision of nonviolent protest to effect social change after his death in 1968. She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change that year and later opposed apartheid in South Africa and participated in other human rights struggles.
Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Perry County, to Obediah and Bernice McMurray Scott, between siblings Edythe and Obediah Leonard. The Scotts owned their cotton farm but struggled as most Alabamians did during the Great Depression. The Scotts placed a great deal of emphasis on education, and the children walked five miles to the one-room Crossroads School for their elementary education. The nearest African American high school, Lincoln, was nine miles away in Marion. Being too far to walk and not wanting her children to board in Marion during the week, Coretta's mother hired a bus and drove all the black students in the community to school daily. Coretta excelled in music, playing both the trumpet and piano, singing in the chorus, and participating in school musicals. She graduated as class valedictorian in 1945.
Coretta left the South to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her sister had been the school's first full-time African American student. She continued her education at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, earning a degree in voice and violin. It was in Boston that she met Martin Luther King Jr., who was working on his doctorate in theology at Boston University. They wed on June 18, 1953, in the garden of Scott's Alabama home. Coretta had the vow to obey her husband removed from the ceremony, which was unusual for the time. The couple returned to Boston, where Coretta earned a bachelor's degree in voice. King finished his residency requirements at Boston College and became minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, in 1954. The Kings would have four children: Yolanda Denise in 1955, Martin Luther III two years later, Dexter Scott in 1961, and Bernice Albertine in 1963.
King soon emerged as an internationally famous civil rights figure as leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the successful boycott of Montgomery busses in 1956 and 1957, and then as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While residing in Montgomery, Coretta fulfilled the many and important responsibilities of a pastor's wife, balancing raising the children and maintaining their home while participating in civil rights protests, all despite numerous death threats. In 1956, the King home was bombed while Coretta and the infant Yolanda were home alone, but neither was injured.
In 1957 the Kings made a trip to Ghana to mark the country's independence. The next year, they traveled to Mexico, where they were moved by the great disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished. In 1960, the family moved to Atlanta, where King joined his father as co-pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Four years later, Martin and Coretta traveled to India for a pilgrimage for Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. That same year, Coretta accompanied Martin to Oslo, Norway, where he received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Throughout their marriage, Coretta remained an active partner with her husband in the civil rights movement. The Kings traveled and marched together whenever possible. Behind the scenes, she managed a variety of administrative work, including handling the vast amounts of mail and phone calls. Using her organizational skills and musical talents, Coretta organized and performed in a series of Freedom Concerts, which combined prose, poetry, and musical selections to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The concerts allowed her to combine her love of music with her life's work of ending discrimination. When necessary, Coretta acted as a surrogate for Martin and gave speeches when he could not. As a lifelong advocate for world peace, Coretta was one of the founders of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and in 1962 was a delegate at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
Following Martin's assassination in April 1968, Coretta continued working in the civil rights movement. Indeed, four days after his death Coretta and the children participated in a large demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee, where her husband had been assassinated. The following June, Coretta delivered the keynote address, based on Martin's notes, at a Washington, D.C., civil rights gathering called the Poor People's Campaign that attracted 50,000 attendees. Coretta turned her efforts to preserving the memory and extending the legacy of her slain husband by founding the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta in 1968, where she served as president and chief executive officer until 1995, when her son Dexter took over. The King Center is a memorial to King's vision of peace and equality and houses an extensive library of documents and artifacts central to the civil rights movement. The 23-acre national historic park includes the home in which he was born and receives more than a million visitors a year.
Coretta created programs at the local, national, and international levels that have trained thousands of people in the philosophy and social activist methods of Martin Luther King Jr., ensuring a living legacy to his nonviolent philosophy of civil liberty. In 1980, Coretta's lobbying efforts came to fruition when the National Park Service declared the King Center and the 23-acre neighborhood surrounding his birthplace a National Historic Site. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Parsonage in Montgomery is a National Historic Landmark.
In 1983 Coretta Scott King led the twentieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which more than 800 human rights organizations formed the Coalition of Conscience, hitherto the largest demonstration ever held in the capital. The Coalition held another march five years later to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Poor People's March of Conscience. In 1984, she chaired the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission to coordinate a national holiday to honor King, and it was first observed in 1986. King supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and met with leaders of Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In 1985, Coretta and three of her children were arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting apartheid. Continuing her life long peace activism, King served as head of the U.S. delegation of Women for a Meaningful Summit in preparation for the Reagan-Gorbachev talks. Two years later she convened the Soviet-American Women's Summit in Washington, D.C.
Throughout her life, Coretta King advocated social liberty, economic justice, peace, and fought homophobia. In 1969 she wrote her memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., and throughout her life was a sought-after speaker. She also wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column and edited a book of her husband's writings, The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was published in 1983. The American Library Association awards the "Coretta Scott King Award" to African American writers and illustrators for outstanding contributions in children's and juvenile literature. King received numerous awards and more than 60 honorary degrees.
In the 1990s the King family and the National Park Service came into conflict over a proposed visitors center across the street from the King center with the King family wanting an interactive museum. The two sides reached an agreement in 1996 and the Park Service opened its facility. Additionally, the King family came under criticism for their tight control of MLK's papers and his image. Critics accused the family of profiting from the rights. Another controversy centered on the guilt of King's confessed assassin James Earl Ray. The King family believed that Ray was not a lone killer but instead MLK was the victim of a conspiracy. In 1997 Coretta called for a new trial for Ray who died in prison the next year. Currently the remaining three King children are divided over keeping the King Center as a private holding or selling it to the park service.
Coretta died January 30, 2006, of complications from cancer and after several strokes had debilitated her. Her body was carried
through the streets of Atlanta on a horse-drawn carriage to the Georgia State Capital, where she became the first woman and
first African American to lie in state. Her funeral was held at the New Birth Missionary Church in Lithonia, Georgia, where
Bernice King is an elder. More than 14,000 people attended, including President George W. Bush and former presidents Jimmy
Carter and Bill Clinton.
Crawford, Vicki, "Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for Civil and Human Rights: An Enduring Legacy." Journal of African American History 92 (Winter 2007): 106-17.
King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Smith, Jessie Carney. Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1993.
Vivian, Octavia. Coretta: The Story of Mrs. Martin Luther King. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
Minoa D. Uffelman
Austin Peay State University
Published March 12, 2008
Last updated May 26, 2013