King, Coretta Scott (1927—)

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King, Coretta Scott (1927—)

African-American activist, and wife of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who took on an independent role in the civil-rights movement in the years following her husband's assassination in 1968. Name variations: Corrie or Cora; Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. Born Coretta Scott on April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Alabama; daughter of Obidiah "Obie" Scott (a farmer, independent truck driver, and small store owner) and Bernice McMurry (also seen as McMurray) Scott; attended public and private schools in Alabama; attended Antioch College, 1945–51, and New England Conservatory of Music, 1951–54; married Martin Luther King, Jr., on June 18, 1953; children: Yolanda Denise King (b. 1955, an actress); Martin Luther King, III (b. 1957); Dexter Scott King (b. 1961); Bernice King (b. 1963).

Received Antioch College Race Relations Committee scholarship (1945); received Jesse Smith Noyes fellowship to New England Conservatory of Music (1951); met Martin Luther King, Jr. (1952); moved to Montgomery, Alabama (1954); start of Montgomery bus boycott (1955); was present with her baby daughter when the King home was bombed (1956); gave concert performance in New York (1956); moved to Atlanta, Georgia (1960); taught at Morris Brown College and attended Geneva disarmament talks (1962); accompanied husband to Norway to receive Nobel Peace Prize (1964); was trapped with family in Chicago riots (1966); assassination of her husband (1968); spoke at St. Paul's Church, began planning for Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial (1969); founded Center for Non-Violent Change (1971); toured South Africa (1986); resigned as head of Center for Non-Violent Change (1994).

Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., the most influential African-American leader of the 20th century, served largely as a witness to the development of the struggle of black Americans for equal rights until the death of her husband at the hands of an assassin in June 1968. Thereafter, she took on an independent role in the civil-rights movement, and, at the same time, worked to preserve her husband's legacy. Scholarly accounts of the movement by historians Taylor Branch and David Garrow have illuminated the complex and sometimes troubled relationship Coretta Scott King had with her husband.

We were united during all the years we were together, not only as man and woman, but also in our belief in the rightness and justice of the civil rights movement and the continuing battle to end war, poverty, and racism.

—Coretta Scott King

Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who grew up in Atlanta, Coretta Scott was a product of the rural South. She was born on April 27, 1927, on a family farm outside Marion, Alabama, the daughter of Obie Scott and Bernice McMurry Scott . Her father, a substantial figure in the black community, worked as a barber and a driver for the local lumber mill in addition to farming. As she recalled in her memoirs, Coretta Scott grew up tending the family garden and was nourished by the food her parents grew. Part of her childhood was spent picking cotton to help meet her school expenses. In the rigidly segregated South of that time, her father was threatened by poor whites who resented his ownership of a truck and his work as an independent driver. "I learned very early to live with fear for the people I loved," she later wrote, noting how this advance training prepared her to cope with the danger her husband faced in his fight against segregation.

Coretta Scott's education began in a segregated one-room country schoolhouse in the nearby village of Heiberger. She walked the sixmile round trip each day. But she entered a different environment at Lincoln High School in Marion. There, in an institution founded after the Civil War by northern missionaries, she and her older sister Edythe Scott were taught by an integrated faculty, half of whose members were white. Her parents stretched their resources to pay the annual fee of $4.50 per child.

Coretta Scott's musical interests blossomed at Lincoln, where she learned the trumpet and took voice lessons. In 1945, she followed Edythe to Antioch College in Ohio. The recently integrated school had a total of six black students. Scott was not attracted to the one young black man in her class, and her steady boyfriend for a year was a Jewish student from New York. Nonetheless, even in this liberal northern environment she experienced a palpable racism. Required to complete a stint as a practice teacher for her degree in elementary education, she was not permitted by the local school board to seek a place in a white school. Such experiences pushed her to become an active member of the Antioch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In all, she found Antioch a crucial experience in expanding her self-confidence and ability to function in a multiethnic world.

While at Antioch, Scott decided to continue her voice training, and she was admitted to Boston's New England Conservatory. Ironically, some of her financial support came from the state of Alabama, which used such grants to promote segregation by encouraging talented black students to leave the state.

In her second semester at the conservatory, Coretta Scott met Martin Luther King, Jr., a young Baptist minister who was studying for a doctorate in theology at Boston University. The two were introduced by a mutual friend, one of Scott's fellow students at the conservatory. On their first date, Martin told Coretta that she had all the qualities he was looking for in a wife: "character, intelligence, personality, and beauty." He explained to her that he was involved with a woman in Atlanta, but that the relationship was one that their respective families were sponsoring, and he wanted to choose his future spouse himself. Martin expected a wife to be primarily a homemaker who would deal comfortably with all segments of his future congregations, including the many simple and uneducated parishioners she would encounter.

In the end, Coretta Scott put aside her musical ambitions, her "dissimilar plan for my life," to fulfill the young Martin's wishes. She visited the King family in Atlanta in the summer following her first acquaintance with Martin. A few months later, when his parents, Martin Luther King, Sr., and Alberta King , were visiting Boston, Martin announced his plans to marry Coretta. She in turn shifted the direction of her studies at the conservatory so that she could teach music rather than pursue a career as a performer. The two were married at Coretta Scott's Alabama home on June 18, 1953, with Martin's father performing the ceremony. She convinced her future father-in-law to omit from the ceremony the customary promise from the bride to obey her husband.

In 1954, with his doctorate almost completed, Martin Luther King, Jr., accepted a position as minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Coretta King was initially opposed to his decision. While she accepted the fact that they would return to the South someday, she hoped to enjoy living in the more racially liberated atmosphere of the North for some time longer. She was particularly reluctant to settle in Montgomery with its rigid racial segregation.

During the year following their arrival in Montgomery, the Kings found their circumstances changing rapidly. In November 1955, they had their first child, a girl they named Yolanda Denise. Only a few months before, Martin had received his doctorate in systemic theology from Boston University. Meanwhile, the civilrights movement in Montgomery began to focus around the issue of segregation on the city's buses. The refusal of Rosa Parks , an African-American woman, to give up her seat to a white passenger in accordance with the racial requirements of the time led to the boycott of the bus lines by members of the black community. Martin, who soon emerged as the leader of the boycott organization, was arrested and held in the city jail overnight for an alleged traffic violation. At home, Coretta was confronted with up to 40 threatening and obscene phone calls each day.

On January 30, 1956, while Coretta and her baby daughter were present and Martin was away giving a speech, the King home was bombed. Although no one was injured in the attack, their families implored Martin and Coretta King to leave Montgomery. They both refused. While they accepted the fact that members of their congregation were guarding their house, the Kings, as devotees of nonviolence, refused to permit them to be armed. As she later recalled, "I was able to draw strength from my religious faith. … If you are doing what God wants you to do you will be successful and fulfilled in the process."

In the difficult days of the early civil-rights movement, Coretta King took on the roles that she would continue for more than a decade. The King house, with Coretta as cook and host, became a meeting ground for civil-rights workers. When Martin could not speak at a meeting, Coretta often filled in for him. She became a featured performer at money-raising concerts to support the cause of civil rights and integration. The first such performance was in New York on December 5, 1956, the anniversary of the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. Perhaps most crucially, she provided emotional support and encouragement for her seriously burdened husband. One of her close friends later described her during these years as "a very strong woman, the best wife and partner Martin could have had." She added, however, that no other woman "could have lived with him and kept any kind of personal identity at all. Cora did."

After the success of the bus boycott, Martin and other black leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to expand the effort to end racial segregation. Meanwhile the King family grew with the birth of a son, Martin Luther III, in October 1957. While Coretta King watched as her husband achieved national acclaim as a civil-rights leader, such prominence came at a heavy price. In September 1958, she received a phone call informing her that Martin had been stabbed by a deranged black woman in New York City. Visiting him at the hospital, Coretta learned that he had missed being fatally injured by a mere fraction of an inch.

The King family moved to Atlanta in 1960. Martin had decided to devote all his energies to the struggle for civil rights, and thus he gave up his work as the full-time minister of the church in Montgomery. It was an opportune moment; young black students in the South, partly inspired by the success of the bus boycott in Montgomery, were staging sit-ins to challenge restaurant segregation. The cost for Martin's growing role in the civil-rights movement was a series of jail sentences, and Coretta found herself repeatedly consoling her children for their father's absence and explaining the motives behind his actions to them. Martin Luther King's activities placed an increasing strain on his family. Writes David Garrow, "He was not intentionally uncaring, but sometimes it seemed that way."

In the fall of 1960, after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been sentenced to a long term in

an Alabama jail, Coretta King received a call from Senator John F. Kennedy, who was in the final stages of his campaign for the presidency. Kennedy offered the Kings his assistance, and the storm of publicity resulting from the call helped to free Martin on bail. Coretta King later wrote that she shared the view of many historians that the votes Kennedy won by this action were decisive in electing him to the presidency that year.

Coretta King again became a mother in January 1961 with the birth of a third child, a son whom the parents named Dexter. In the early 1960s, already a veteran of peace groups during her college days at Antioch, she now joined the Atlanta chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In March 1962, she accepted an invitation from another peace group, the Women's Strike for Peace, to attend a disarmament conference in Geneva, Switzerland. As a member of a delegation of 50 American women, she joined with delegates from other countries in trying to influence atomic test ban negotiations taking place in the Swiss city.

In the spring of 1963, Martin was involved in the effort to stage massive civil-rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most important and most segregated cities in the South. Meanwhile, in March, Coretta gave birth to their fourth child, a daughter they named Bernice . When she found that her husband had not only been arrested but was being held without any contact with the outside world, Coretta King tried to telephone the president of the United States, then the vice-president, for help in assuring Martin's safety. After a flurry of calls, she received an answer from President Kennedy, who assured her that the FBI was being sent to Birmingham. When she spoke to Martin thereafter, he remarked on how suddenly his treatment in prison had improved.

The mass demonstrations at Birmingham not only led to a settlement starting the desegregation of the city, they also pushed the Kennedy administration to propose a sweeping civil-rights bill. Coretta King remembered Birmingham "as a turning point almost too significant to be grasped at the time of its happening." She also recalled suggesting to her husband that the momentum of the civil-rights movement could be promoted by "a massive March on Washington."

The March on Washington, for which the most important impetus had come from such leaders as A. Philip Randolph, head of the Negro American Labor Council, took place on August 28, 1963. Coretta King was disappointed to learn that she would not be able to march alongside her husband. The front row of marchers was to be given to the top leadership of the civilrights movement. She did manage to sit behind Martin Luther King, Jr., on the platform for his stirring "I have a dream" speech. She later recalled she was also hurt, however, when she was excluded from her husband's meeting with President Kennedy. David Garrow put it more strongly, noting that her "pleasure with the event was replaced by fury" when she learned she would not accompany Martin to the White House.

Despite the triumphant success of the gathering in Washington, Coretta King had growing reason to fear for her husband's life. In June 1963, the head of the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers, had been shot to death at the door of his home. Shortly after the March on Washington, murderers set a bomb at a Birmingham church that killed four young black girls, Denise McNair (11), Cynthia Wesley (14), Addie Mae Collins (14), and Carol Robertson (14). The final tragedy of the year was the assassination of President Kennedy in November. At that moment, Martin warned his wife, "This is what is going to happen to me also." She found that she could not refute his thinking once he had pronounced the grim words. When she watched Jacqueline Kennedy at the president's funeral, Coretta had the feeling that she was "steeling myself for our own fate."

In 1964, Coretta King, taking her 1956 stage appearance in New York as a model, began a series of "Freedom Concerts." They combined her skills as a singer and public speaker in order to raise money for various parts of the civil-rights movement, and they gave her a chance to resume her abandoned singing career. She persisted in the face of her husband's skepticism that such events would be a financial success. He admitted his mistake, she recalled, when the concerts brought in more than $50,000. A year later, in another public act in support of her political beliefs, she insisted on joining her husband in one of the marches in Selma, Alabama, aimed at obtaining voting rights for black Americans.

In late 1964, the Kings learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In her memoirs, Coretta King recalled that she was the first to receive the news when the Associated Press called the family home. She accompanied her husband and her in-laws, along with a number of colleagues from the civil-rights movement, to Oslo for the ceremony.

Despite such occasional roles in public, Coretta found, often to her frustration, that her life centered on home. Her husband was too often absent to play a steady role in raising their four children. It became her responsibility, for example, to deal with the children's health problems. While she described her relationship with her husband in mild language in her memoirs, historian Taylor Branch indicates a more difficult situation. He refers to the "mutual recriminations" the Kings exchanged in phone calls during their separations in the early 1960s as "Coretta King complained bitterly from home about his constant and prolonged abandonments." She was embittered by her husband's insistence, notes Garrow, that "she take care of the home and family and not become involved in movement activities."

In her memoirs, Coretta King recalled briefly that, by 1965, she and her husband were aware their phone lines were being tapped by the FBI. She left unmentioned the type of information such spying brought and the use to which it was put. Even at the time of their courtship, Coretta King had discussed with her future husband his attractiveness to large numbers of women. She later wrote that he explained this simply: "You know that women are hero-worshippers." Soon after Martin Luther King had risen to prominence through the Montgomery bus boycott, rumors about his extramarital affairs had appeared in print in a prominent black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. Now, as a result of their telephone surveillance, J. Edgar Hoover and other leading FBI officials had clear evidence that Martin was engaged in extensive sexual activity outside his marriage. They circulated this material among government officials and threatened Martin with public exposure as an adulterer.

After passage of the Federal Voting Rights Bill in 1965, Martin now directed much of his energy in an effort to improve the lives of black Americans living outside the South. For a time in the summer of 1966, Coretta King and their children joined him in living in a slum apartment in Chicago as they tried to familiarize themselves with life in a northern ghetto. During a riot that broke out in that city in July, Coretta and her children found themselves trapped in their apartment as police clashed with rioters and shots rang out in the neighborhood.

In April 1967, Martin made his first major speech opposing the Vietnam War. Coretta helped defend her husband against the storm of criticism that followed, and she herself became prominent as a speaker against the war. When he spoke to a massive demonstration in New York that month, she went to San Francisco to address a large crowd there.

Coretta King remembered the early months of 1968 as a time when she and her husband had "a sense of fate closing in." Martin had long spoken openly about the personal danger in which he found himself: he was convinced that men who took clear moral stands risked their lives and that he could not worry about his own safety. Coretta King now had the feeling he was "preparing himself for his fate" as "the last few months before his death were lived at a frantic pace." In March, in an unaccustomed gesture, he gave her a bouquet of artificial flowers, the last flowers he ever bought his wife. "Somehow, in

some strange way," she believed, "he seemed to have known how long they would have to last."

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., was fatally shot by an assassin. Coretta King received the first terrible news that her husband had been wounded in a phone call from Jesse Jackson. She had just returned from a shopping trip to buy Easter clothing for the King children. She rushed to the airport and, while waiting for her plane, learned that her husband had died. The following Monday, she and her three oldest children took part in a civil-rights march in Memphis. It was the march Martin Luther King, Jr., had been scheduled to lead.

In the aftermath of her husband's death, Coretta King emerged as a powerful, and sometimes controversial, personality in her own right. She saw to it that her four children received psychiatric care following the loss of their father. She was granted the signal honor of being invited to preach from the pulpit of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the first woman in history to have such an opportunity. She began to plan a monument for Martin. Her book of memoirs, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., was published in English in 1969 and subsequently appeared in 14 other languages.

At the same time, some workers in the civilrights movement found her manner so imperious that they began to call her "The Queen," or, linking her loss to that of the Kennedy family, "Black Jackie." In a highly critical article that appeared in 1972, The New York Times writer Henry R. Leifermann noted the affluence in which Coretta King seemed to live, a marked contrast from the modest standard of living Martin had insisted on.

In 1971, after three years of planning, Coretta King opened the memorial to her late husband, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. She raised more than $10 million for the Center, and served as the founding president and the chief executive officer until 1994. She also took the lead in the successful movement to have her husband's birthday, January 15, declared a national holiday beginning in 1985. The following year, she toured the Union of South Africa, meeting with black civil-rights leaders there. In recent years, she pursued, and lost, a law suit over the rights to a large portion of her late husband's papers held by Boston University. To help expose the truth about her husband's murder, she called for a public trial of the convicted killer James Earl Ray (whom the King family believes did not act alone) before his death. She also became embroiled in conflict with the U.S. Park Service over a plot of land the Park Service wishes to use for a memorial to her late husband; the King family wanted the land for a museum tied to the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1994, as Coretta King moved toward retirement, she saw her son Dexter Scott King take over as CEO of the Center for Non-Violent Social Change.

sources:

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

——. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Current Biography Yearbook, 1969. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1969.

Diamonstein, Barbaralee. Open Secrets: Ninety-four Women in Touch with Our Time. NY: Viking Press, 1972.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. NY: William Morrow, 1986.

King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. ed. NY: Henry Holt, 1993.

Leifermann, Henry R. "Profession: Concert Singer, Freedom Movement Lecturer," in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. November 26, 1972.

The New York Times. 1985–1997.

Nugent, Lynn. "Coretta Scott King: The Woman Behind the King Anniversary," in Ebony. January 1990, pp. 116–121.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California