Yesterday was the start of Women’s History Month. As a smooth transition between Black History & Women’s History months, I thought it would be great to go into significant women behind the Civil Rights Movement. None were more significant than Coretta Scott King.
We spent most of Black History Month talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we always do, but particularly because of the movie Selma. Typically this means that Coretta Scott King is mentioned as the man beside, or more like it, behind Dr. King. Coretta is rarely mentioned as a prominent & important figure in her own right. But she absolutely was.
Coretta was a very beautiful, intelligent, talented, strong, & influential figure. Not simply as Mrs. King, but as an activist all by herself. She was born in Marion, Alabama on April 27, 1927. The granddaughter of slaves & the daughter of farmers/entrepreneurs, she was raised in an environment of great strength. She had to work & pick cotton starting at just 10 years old.
She was a self-described tomboy as a child, often wrestling & climbing with the boys. She grew up, went to school, & became involved in many activities, especially choir, which began her love for singing. She graduated high school as valedictorian. She followed her older sister to Antioch College, her sister having been their first black student.
While at Antioch she joined the NAACP chapter. She was also an AKA. She graduated from Antioch with a Bachelor of Art degree in music & education. She then received a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where she earned a second degree in voice & violin. Coretta had aspirations to be a classical singer. While there she first met Martin Luther King Jr.
She was not initially terribly attracted to him, but grew to really like & respect him because he reminded her of her father. They dated for a few years before getting married after each had finished school. She removed the part from her vows saying that she would obey her husband.
They moved down to Montgomery, Alabama right after they were married. They were immediately swept up into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. From that point on, Martin began his work in the Civil Rights Movement. Coretta worked hard in it as well, traveling with her husband & working diligently to have him released whenever he found himself in prison. Coretta also organized & sang at Freedom Concerts to help fundraise for SCLC. Although she did not become a singer in the way she initially dreamed, she used her voice to sing for the Civil Rights Movement.
Coretta was endangered many times by the attempts to kill Martin. She often bounced between her & his families for the safety of their children. She & Martin had 4 children. She held down the fort while Martin was out doing his work, but also continued doing her own. She was very active in the feminist movement. She criticized the Civil Rights Movement for downplaying women’s rights, as well as their very important role in the Civil Rights Movement itself.
Following her husband’s assassination, she had difficulty helping her children understand that their father was gone. She immediately picked up the responsibilities of Martin, taking on his speaking engagements & marching where he was supposed to. Initially she used some of the words he’d written before passing, but eventually she wrote her own speeches.
She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, where she was president & CEO for many years before passing it on to son Dexter. Along with her work through the center, she was the one who began & fought hard to make her husband’s birthday a national holiday. She worked with many politicians from JFK to LBJ & many more.
Coretta did a great deal in her long career of activism. She and 3 of her children were arrested in 1985 for protesting apartheid. She was a liaison to peace and justice organizations and mediator to public officials, giving voice to the voiceless. She guided the creation & housing of the largest archives of documents from the Civil Rights Movement, she led goodwill missions to many countries, was a women’s strike for peace delegate, the first woman to deliver the class day address at Harvard, the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, formed coalition of over 100 religious, labor, business, civil, and women’s rights organizations, &head of U.S. delegation of a Women for Meaningful Change Summit in Athens, Greece. She wrote 3 books, including her memoir published just 1 year after her husband’s death, My Life With Martin Luther King Jr., received 60 honorary degrees, & helped found countless organizations.
She was also an advocate for LGBT rights. She is quoted as saying, “I believe all Americans who believe in freedom, tolerance, & human rights have a responsibility to oppose bigotry and prejudice based on sexual orientation.” All of this while a single mother.
Coretta was a force to be reckoned with. She was not just in the background. This is evident by the fact that the FBI monitored her as well following her husband’s assassination. We have her to thank for so much progress, as well as carrying on the legacy of not only Dr. King, but the entire Civil Rights Movement. Women like her, Betty Shabazz, & Myrlie Evers do not get enough credit for their works outside of their husbands. For more info on her legacy go to www.thekingcenter.org/about-mrs-king & for more on Women’s History Month go to womenshistorymonth.gov. Salute to these awesome women & happy women’s history month.