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Happy Birthday, Coretta Scott King, First Lady of Civil Rights

Written By Shannon Firth
Last updated: February 15, 2023

Coretta Scott King was more than just the wife of a legend, she was a singer, an organizer and an activist in her own right, pledging her support to nonviolence, tolerance and equality for all races, genders and classes. Though criticized for both whitewashing her husband’s image and for not rigidly following his beliefs, she did what was in her nature—she persevered.

Coretta Scott King’s Early Days

Coretta Scott was born on April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Ala., to Bernice McMurry and Obadiah Scott. The family lived in a two-room house on a farm her parents had inherited. Growing up in rural Alabama, Coretta saw discrimination everywhere, from the segregated movie theaters to the school buses only white children could ride.

Like most families of the Depression Era, the Scotts struggled. Coretta, her brother, and her sister picked cotton to help with the finances. But her parents were resourceful. She told the Academy of Achievement, “My mother always told me that I was going to go to college, even if she didn’t have but one dress to put on.”

Coretta graduated first in her class at Lincoln High School. Then, on scholarship, she studied music and education at Antioch College; her sister Edyth had been the college’s first black student.

Read the findingDulcinea profile of Martin Luther King.

A second scholarship brought her to the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she met Martin Luther King in 1952. King wooed her saying, “The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all.”

Having decided to become a concert singer, Scott was reluctant to give up her career to be a preacher’s wife, but King proposed. Six months later she accepted. When they married in 1953, the future Mrs. King asked King’s father, also a reverend, to strike the word “obey” from her vows; though taken aback, he conceded.

King’s Notable Accomplishments

Sources in this Story

  • Academy of Achievement: Coretta Scott King
  • The King Center: Coretta Scott King
  • The New York Times: Coretta Scott King, a Civil Rights Icon, Dies at 78
  • Time: Coretta Scott King
  • Salon: Coretta and Hilary Not Yet Free
  • Encyclopedia of Alabama: Coretta Scott King
  • NPR: Coretta Scott King Honored as Civil Rights Champion

The couple made a home in Montgomery, Ala., and Dr. King began preaching at Dexter Avenue Church. According to the King Center’s Web site, between the births of her four children, Mrs. King produced and performed in Freedom Concerts, a medley of prose, poems and music, which raised money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Dr. King was president.

In 1955 Dr. King spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks’ famous arrest. The Kings led protests and marches in several cities. The more attention they received, the more threatened they felt. In her autobiography King recalls, “One night, while Martin was at a mass rally, I was at home with a friend and our first child, two-month-old Yolanda, when a bomb hit our front porch and exploded.”

These threats did not curb either King’s ambitions. The Kings traveled the world campaigning for peace and equality. As Mrs. King’s recognition increased she became more active in the public sphere, often lecturing on behalf of her husband. According to the Academy of Achievement, Mrs. King also joined Women Strike for Peace, acting as a delegate at a disarmament conference in Switzerland; she also denounced America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, even before Dr. King himself had.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Four days later, shaken but not daunted, Mrs. King led sanitation workers in a march on Memphis. In June that same year she stood in for her husband, speaking from his notes at the Poor People’s march in Washington, D.C.

James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, was imprisoned for King’s murder in 1969. Many, including the Kings, believed Ray might have been innocent and that others had conspired to kill King. The Justice Department ran an inquiry but the Kings were dissatisfied with its results, saying: “We do not believe that, in such a politically sensitive matter, the government is capable of investigating itself.”

Coretta dedicated much of her life to preserving her husband’s image. In 1969, she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which trained thousands in the practice of social activism. She also lobbied for a national day of remembrance for her husband, finally observed in 1986.

In the 1970s, she created several interracial coalitions that sought to establish economic and employment opportunities throughout the country. In 1983 she founded the Coalition of Conscience to celebrate the 20th anniversary march on Washington, at the time, the largest protest Washington, D.C., had ever seen. Two years later, also in Washington, Mrs. King and three of her children were arrested during an anti-apartheid protest.

In later years, Mrs. King also spoke out against racial profiling, mandatory minimum sentences and the condemnation of affirmative action. And she blamed Hollywood, the media, and gunmakers for promoting violence: “[We] severely limit the advertising of cigarettes because of their effect on human health. But we allow virtually anyone in America to buy a gun and virtually everyone in the nation to see graphic violence.”

The Rest of the Story

Coretta Scott King died on Jan. 31, 2006, from inoperable ovarian cancer; she left behind four children: Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice. (Her eldest daughter Yolanda died unexpectedly a year later.) In its obituary, Time magazine cited Mrs. King’s autobiography: “Love, truth, and the courage to do what is right should be our own guideposts on this lifelong journey.”

The New York Times has created a slideshow in remembrance of Coretta Scott King.

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