Coretta Scott King: Dedicated Activist
African-American civil rights activist and author Coretta Scott King was born April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Alabama, Coretta Scott was the daughter of Bernice McMurry Scott, a housewife, and Obadiah Scott, a lumber carrier. Scott grew up walking three miles each day to school while school buses carrying white children drove by her. Such occurrences, while difficult, led her to strive for equality and the best for herself. Scott went on to graduate from high school and in 1945 entered Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, on a scholarship.
Majoring in education and music, Scott became alarmed when she was not able to teach in a public school because she was Black. At this time she became involved with civil rights groups and joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP, the college’s Race Relations Committee, and civil liberties committees. In 1951, she accepted a scholarship to continue her musical training at the New England Conservatory in Boston before finishing her degree from Antioch College. Upon her arrival in Boston, she met her future husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., a young minister who was studying for his Ph.D. at Boston University.
On June 18, 1953, Martin Luther King, Sr., performed the marriage ceremony for his son, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott. They returned to the South to work on the civil liberties of Black Americans. By 1964, King was the mother of four children: Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine. She had also become active with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although usually at her husband’s side, she made solo appearances at various civil rights functions that her husband could not attend. She also performed at benefit concerts by lecturing and even singing to the audience. On April 4, 1968, her husband was shot and killed while giving a speech on a hotel balcony.
She knew that she had to be strong for her children and to continue the work of her husband. In the years immediately following her husband’s death, she remained involved in many things. In June of 1969 King published her first biography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., which focused on their relationship, their family, civil rights, and activism. After many years of speeches and fundraising, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non Violent Social Change was opened in 1981 in Atlanta.
King always spoke out for human rights and freedom for all people. Not long before her death, she became involved in opposition of the death penalty. Although King lost her husband and mother-in-law to gunmen, she could not accept the judgment that their killers deserve to be executed. She believed the death penalty continues the cycle of violence and destroys all hope for a decent society. Another of King’s passions was the International Peace Movement. In 1985, she was arrested while protesting the South African Government’s policy of racial segregation known as apartheid.
In 1986, her husband’s birthday—January 15—became a national holiday because of her dedication to the acknowledgements of her husband’s achievements. King earned numerous awards over the years for her commitment to activism. She was named “Woman of the Year” two times, first in 1960 by the Utility Club of New York City, and then again in 1968 by the National Association of Radio and TV announcers. She also had an award named after her: The Coretta Scott King Award, which is presented by the American Library Association, is given annually to a Black author and a Black illustrator for their outstanding inspirational and educational contributions published during the previous year.
King wrote a book about her work in the civil rights movement and gave motivational speeches across the country. In August 2005, King suffered a stroke; she died on January 30, 2006, as a result of its complications. After her death, a horse-drawn carriage carried the body of Coretta Scott King to Georgia’s state Capitol, where she was the first woman and first Black person to lie in honor.
Who’s Who of American Women (and Women of Canada)
Fifth Edition, 1968-1969