Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott was born in Heiberger, Alabama on April 27, 1927. Her father, Obadiah Scott, despite only having completed one year of high school, used his entrepreneurial skills to combine chicken farming with hauling lumber, and eventually owned his own sawmill and a grocery store. Bernice Scott, Coretta’s mother, with the help of her children, took care of the family garden, hogs, chickens and cows. Realizing her fourth grade education left her disadvantaged, she instilled in her children the importance of education.
School in Alabama
“My early schooling was greatly affected by the system of segregation. These impressionable years are so important in laying a solid foundation. Our elementary school was at Heiberger, a crossroads village nearer than Marion, but still about three miles from home. Rain or shine, we walked there and back each day, and I remember that the buses carrying the white children to their school would rattle past us in a cloud of dust or spatter of mud. I remember resenting that.”
“Our school was an unpainted frame building with one big room in which one hundred or more children were taught in the first through sixth grades. Later, it was partitioned into two rooms and painted inside and out. There were combination wooden benches and desks that had been built by a local carpenter. Sections of the wall were painted black, and these served as blackboards. The toilets were outdoors, and the room was heated by the usual wood-burning stove.”
“We had two black teachers, and they were dedicated women. They probably had junior college training, though in previous years you had only to pass an examination to begin teaching – in black schools. Some people who passed had only an eighth-grade education.”
“The time came when I fully realized how very different our school was from the white children’s school. The facilities were certainly separate, but they were extremely unequal. The whites had a fine brick building. Though I never set foot in it, I was sure there were separate classrooms for each grade, and all sorts of equipment we never had. I know there was a library. We had no library and very few books. We had to buy our regular textbooks, while the white children were given their textbooks free. They went to school nine months a year; we went for seven months – in Mother’s time, it was only three months. Under these conditions, how could the achievements of black children be equal to those of white children?”
“My elementary school took me through the sixth grade. Then Mother arranged for Edythe and me to go to a much better school ten miles away in Marion – one that was as good as any school, white or black, in the area…The American Missionary Association started [Lincoln High School] shortly after the Civil War, when there were no schools for blacks in the South. The association sent white missionary teachers down to teach the former slave children. By the time I went to Lincoln, the faculty was integrated – about half white, half black – but of course the students were all black.”
“The white people in Marion generally despised our northern teachers, whom they called radicals and ‘nigger lovers.’ They considered the school’s integrated housing facilities scandalous, and the teachers were fairly isolated in the community.”
“Lincoln [High School] opened the world to me, especially the world of music. I was taught to play the trumpet…We all had to learn to read music…I learned to play the flutaphone…Of course, I sang – I always sang.”
“The faculty at Lincoln was brave and dedicated, and the school had a strong tradition of service to humanity which was communicated to its students. I feel that the chance to go to such a school made a real difference in my life. As I look back now, so many things that happened to me when I was much younger seem to have been preparing me for my life with Martin. Going to Lincoln School was one of the most important of these.”
“Despite efforts by African-American parents to protect their children from the dreadful hurt of segregation and discrimination, sooner or later, all African-American children lose their racial innocence. Some incident suddenly makes them realize that they are regarded as inferior. White children may suddenly refuse to play with them, or they find out that they have to sit on the hard wooden seats in the hot, crowded balcony at the movies, as we did, instead of the comfortable orchestra….I remember, when I was a very little girl, having to go to the side door of the white-owned drugstore with the other black children to buy an ice cream cone. I would have to wait until all the white children were served, and then, no matter what flavor I asked for, the man would give me whatever he had too much of. Of course, we paid exactly what the white kids paid.”
“In Marion, I ran into much more racial feeling than I had ever personally known. When we walked to school, the white teenagers would come down the street all abreast and try to knock us off the sidewalk. If we stood our ground, they would call us ‘dirty niggers’ and we would call them ‘white trash.’”
“My father was having troubles too…. On Thanksgiving night in 1942, one of our undertakers…telephoned Edythe and me in Marion to tell us that our house had burned down. The authorities did not investigate at all…no one cared about what happened to black people.”
“Still, my father was not discouraged. He went to work the next day as usual, and by spring he had saved enough money to buy a sawmill. The logger who worked in the mill was white, and after my father had owned the mill for about two weeks, the logger came to him and said he wanted to buy it. My father said, ‘No, I don’t want to sell.’…The next Monday when my father went to his sawmill in the woods, he found only ashes... My father is such an amazing person. He never became bitter, despite all these incidents, all the humiliations and harassments by the whites who wanted to keep him down because they saw their own jobs imperiled, and because they did not want any black man to rise above ‘his place.’”
Both her sister Edythe and Coretta were invited to attend to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a formerly white-only college looking for African American students. They were excited to leave the oppression of the South and experience a greater degree of freedom. Coretta did not receive a full scholarship, as her sister two years earlier, so she spent her last summer before college in Alabama picking cotton. Coretta describes her initial immersion into the society at Antioch in 1945:
When I first got there, the first thing I noticed was the friendliness of the people I met. It was not until later, when I had more experience, that I realized that there was, even there, a color bar. People were nice to me and tried to be friendly, but I could sense that in the backs of their minds was the feeling of race superiority bred through generations and by all the myths about black people they had acquired.
One of only three African American students in her class, Coretta resented the constant questions about her race and why more black students didn’t qualify for college.
What they couldn’t understand was that not everyone wants to be a pioneer. There were black students who were qualified and who could afford Antioch but who would not want to come because they might be isolated or subjected to special treatment. Also, many African-American parents hoped that their sons and daughters would find suitable wives and husbands at college. That was most unlikely at a school like Antioch in the mid-1940’s, which had only token integration.
Despite her love of music, Coretta thought it was more practical to get her degree at Antioch in elementary education. As the first black in the program, the administration was unprepared to integrate the student teaching program and she confronted their prejudice head on.
The second year I was supposed to teach in the public elementary school…The supervisor of practice teaching at Antioch would not allow me to push the matter when I was turned down. She was the type who openly said, “God did not intend the races to mix.” The Yellow Springs schools were integrated, but the faculty was white…I appealed to the president of Antioch. He was quite new to the school and no pioneer in race relations. After I told him my story, all he said was, “Well, Corrie, what do you want us to do about it?”…“You might appeal to the school board,” I suggested. But, on the teaching supervisor’s advice, he refused to act.
At her college counselor’s advice, she taught within Antioch’s practice school to complete her major, but felt “terribly disillusioned.” Coretta fought back bitterness and joined a chapter of NAACP, a Race Relations Committee and a Civil Liberties Committee at Antioch. Even with the racial discrimination she experienced, Coretta still saw value in her years at Antioch College:
“…Though I could not change the system, I knew that I had to stand up for what I believed in. In the end, my efforts helped those who followed me.”
“I took to heart the words of Horace Mann, who founded Antioch. In his address to the first graduating class he had said, ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.’”
“Antioch gave me an increased understanding of my own personal worth. I was no longer haunted by a feeling of inadequacy just because I was an African American. I enjoyed a new self-assurance that encouraged me in competition with all people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, on their terms or on mine. Antioch – the total experience of Antioch – was an important element in preparing me for the role I was to play as the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., and for my part in the Movement he led.”
Coretta graduated from Antioch College in 1951. Urged by Antioch faculty to pursue her musical career at a conservatory of music, Coretta’s counselor assisted her with applications to foundations for scholarships.
“Somehow, I had always had a strong desire…to make the greatest contribution possible to society. Embodied in this attitude was the belief that each individual’s life is purposeful and that he has a special role to play…”
Music and Marriage
Coretta was accepted to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and was awarded a scholarship for tuition, but had to find work immediately to support herself. Her first days in Boston were challenging – sometimes she went without meals – but she was finally immersed in music: “All these years I had waited, and now I was here in Boston in this environment where I was absorbing music. Everything about it seemed so right. I was very happy.”
In her second semester at the music conservatory, Coretta was introduced to a young man studying for his doctorate in theology at Boston University named Martin Luther King, Jr. She resisted the match initially. “The moment Mary told me the young man was a minister I lost interest, for I began to think of the stereotypes of ministers I had known – fundamentalists in their thinking, very narrow, and overly pious.”
Pressured by him on the phone, Coretta did agree to meet Martin for lunch one day: “My first thought was ‘How short he seems’”, and her second was, “How unimpressive he looks.” Talking during lunch, Coretta began to see Martin’s true character: “…He radiated charm. When he talked, he grew in stature. Even when he was so young, he drew people to him from the very first moment with his eloquence, his sincerity, and his moral stature. I knew immediately that he was very special.”
Much to her surprise, Martin announced to her on that first date that she possessed all the qualities he was looking for in a wife:
I know it sounds strange that Martin should talk about marriage so soon in our relationship. However, Martin was ready to get married and was quite consciously looking for a wife. He already knew exactly where he was heading in his life and had formed a pretty good idea of the kind of wife who would fit in with that life. I do not mean to say that he was cold and calculating, without any romantic ideas. That is certainly not the case. What is true is that Martin was remarkably mature for his age. He knew the sort of person he himself was, and the sort of woman he needed. It was as if he had no time for mistakes, as if he had to make up his mind quickly and correctly, and then move on with his life.
Although she secretly hoped that nothing would stop her impending musical career from budding, Coretta fell in love with Martin, and they were married in 1953. Both Coretta and Martin completed their studies at their respective schools, and then came the question of where to live. Martin was very clear that he wanted to return to the South and make a difference. Coretta had hoped to remain in the north a little longer to gain experience as a vocalist. When a minister in Montgomery, Alabama, died suddenly, Martin became the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. Coretta reflects back:
Though I was opposed to going to Montgomery, I realize now that it was an inevitable part of a greater plan for our lives….we felt a sense of destiny, of being propelled in a certain positive direction. We had the feeling that we were allowing ourselves to be the instruments of God’s creative will.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court reversed its decision that separate but equal schools met the requirements of the 14th Amendment. Then on December 1st of the same year, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. The Civil Rights Movement was born.
“…suddenly, it seemed almost every African American in Montgomery had had enough. It was spontaneous combustion. Phones began ringing all over the black section of the city. The Women’s Political Council suggested a one-day boycott of the buses as a protest.”
In the African American community in Montgomery, husbands, wives, and students were all active participants in boycotts and protests. Martin was voted president of the newly formed movement, a position which carried great risk. Coretta acted as Martin’s secretary, performing a challenging balancing act between motherhood and being the First Lady of the Movement. Historian, Octavia Vivian reflects:
Each of the four King children was born or was very young during a crisis in the lives of the Kings. Yolanda Denise, born November 17, 1955, was two and a half months old when the King home was bombed in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King III, born October 23, 1957, was a year old when his father was stabbed in New York City. Coretta was pregnant with Dexter Scott, born January 30, 1961, when Martin was chained and carried to Reidsville Penitentiary. Fourteen days after Bernice Albertine was born, March 28, 1963, Martin was held incommunicado in a Birmingham cell.
To help raise money for the movement, Coretta performed musical programs that combined narrative and song, performing with music legends such as Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte. She traveled the country giving speeches about the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Coretta, also a proponent of world peace, spoke at the Women’s Strike for Peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland. Both Coretta and Martin spoke out against the Vietnam War, noting that those resources could be used to alleviate poverty in the U.S.
Like others involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the King family endured bombings, phone threats, physical attacks, illegal phone taps, arrests, and imprisonment. They learned to conquer their fear and press on. In Coretta’s words:
…Somehow in the midst of these trying moments of darkness, a hope, a ray of light has always come to brighten my way. With a strong conviction that the cause to which we have dedicated our lives is right, I can go on with the faith that right will win and truth and goodness will ultimately triumph.
On one of his many trips away from his family to lead a march, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. There was an outpouring of compassion for Coretta and her children and major news coverage honoring Martin’s life. Rioting broke out in numerous cities across the country. Despite her pain, Coretta knew she needed to calm the people, so she held a press conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In her address she said:
My husband often told the children that if a man had nothing that was worth dying for, then he was not fit to live…He knew at any moment his physical life could be cut short, and we faced this possibility squarely and honestly…He knew that this was a sick society, totally infested with racism and violence…he struggled with every ounce of his energy to save that society from itself…Nothing hurt him more than that man could attempt no way to solve problems except through violence…We intend to go on in search of that way, and I hope that you who loved and admired him would join us in fulfilling his dream…The day that Negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day I know my husband will rest in a long-deserved peace.
As Martin had gone to Memphis to lead a march, famed singer and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte asked Coretta if she would lead the march in Martin’s place. She immediately agreed despite only being three days after his death. She closed her speech with the following remark:
How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society? How long will it take? If we can catch the spirit and the true meaning of this experience, I believe that this nation can be transformed into a society of love, of justice, peace, and brotherhood where all men can really be brothers.
On Her Own
Coretta continued to participate in the Movement, launching the Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis in May of 1968. To support herself and her children, Coretta accepted speaking engagements. She began fundraising to build a Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which would house a research library and training facility, and wrote an autobiography about her life with Martin. Coretta and Congressman John Conyers pressured Congress for fifteen years to establish a national holiday in Dr. King’s name, which was finally granted in 1983.
Coretta spoke out against the Vietnam War, bringing to light both the large percentage of African American soldiers who had lost their lives, and the huge cost of militarism which depleted funds for education. She advocated for initiatives for employment, known as Affirmative Action, to address the high unemployment in the African American community. In 1983, Coretta organized the Coalition of Conscience – a demonstration of half a million people in Washington, D.C., to pressure the government to address poverty.
At this point in her life, Coretta, seeing the the inequities and injustices worldwide, broadened her involvement in social change. She demonstrated in support of the anti-apartheid movement, and after a visit to meet Winnie Mandela in 1986, met with President Reagan to urge him to enforce sanctions against South Africa. Tirelessly, she spoke out for women’s equality, civil rights for gays and lesbians, an end to the nuclear arms race, and AIDS education. She also passionately supported gun control.
Devoting her entire life to being the voice of the oppressed, she was recognized as an international powerhouse and was the recipient of more than 50 major awards and doctorates from over 40 college and universities. Historian Stephanie Sammartino McPherson states, “The world saw the faith, desire, and determination [she] possessed.”
As she stepped out on her own, Coretta brought a clear and unwavering vision for justice to an often conflicting and bewildering scene. McPherson elaborates, “In countless travels, speeches, and conferences over the next thirty-five years after [Dr. King’s] death, the First Lady of Civil Rights supported struggles everywhere against what she dubbed the triple evils of racism, poverty, and war.”
Coretta Scott King passed away on January 31, 2006. Her funeral service on February 7 was attended by hundreds of family, friends and dignitaries from around the world. Maya Angelou, who knew Coretta personally, described how Coretta never gave up on the idea that humanity had the power to end wars and poverty and live peacefully. In reference to her humble beginnings and remarkable fortitude, Dr. Angelou spoke this beautiful metaphor:
“She was a quintessential African American woman, born in the small town, repressive South, born of flesh and destined to become iron, born a cornflower and destined to become a steel magnolia.”
Coretta S. King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969) 30.
Octavia Vivian, Coretta: The Story of Coretta Scott King (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006) 57.
Stephanie Sammartino McPherson, Coretta Scott King (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008) 65.