In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we profile the woman who stood by his side during his reign, his wife Coretta Scott King, her achievements, and her dream.
She was born and raised on the farm of her parents in Perry County, Alabama. She walked five miles a day to attend a one-room school, while white students rode buses to an all-white school closer by. She was valedictorian of her graduating class at Lincoln High School and later received a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio.
As an undergraduate, she joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP, and the college’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees, but graduated with a B.A. in music and education and won a scholarship to study concert singing in Boston.
There, she met a young theology student, Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she married on June 18, 1953, in a ceremony conducted by the groom’s father. The young couple moved in September 1954 to Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin Luther King Jr. had accepted an appointment as Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Dr. King’s advocacy of nonviolent civil disobedience made him the most recognizable face of the civil rights movement, and with Mrs. King at his side, he inspired the citizens to defy the segregation laws. He attracted opposition from supporters of institutionalized racism and in 1956, white supremacists bombed their family home in Montgomery. Mrs. King and the couple’s first child narrowly escaped injury.
The Kings had four children: Yolanda Denise; Martin Luther, III; Dexter Scott; and Bernice Albertine. Although raising a family had caused Mrs. King to retire from singing, she found another way to put her musical background to use by performing a series of acclaimed Freedom Concerts, combining poetry, narration and music to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement.
Mrs. King became the first woman to deliver the Class Day address at Harvard, and the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Channeling her grief, Mrs. King concentrated on fulfilling her husband’s work by building The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a living memorial to her husband’s life. In 1974, she formed the Full Employment Action Council, a coalition of over 100 religious, labor, business, civil and women’s rights organizations dedicated to a national policy of full employment and equal economic opportunity.
In 1983, she marked the 20th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington, by leading a gathering of more than 800 human rights organizations. Two years later, she and three of her children were arrested at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting against that country’s apartheid system of racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Ten years later, she stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he was sworn in as President of South Africa (from Achievement.org)
“Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.”
“There are a lot of people who would love to relegate me to a symbolic figure and that’s it. I have never been just a symbol of anything. I am a thinker. I have strong beliefs, and I try to be an example of what I believe in.”
– Coretta Scott King (April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006)