Human Rights Advocate
Those of you who believe in what Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for,
I would challenge you today to see that his spirit never dies.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, his widow understandably could have retired from public life and devoted herself to bringing up her children. Instead, Coretta Scott King carried on her husband's work, trying to fulfill his dream of an America in which all people had equal rights.
Since that time, King has become a forceful public figure and an important leader in the civil rights movement. She has given hundreds of speeches, abroad as well as at home, and been active in such organizations as the National Council of Negro women and the Women's Strike for Peace. She has also taken on the role of writer, publishing a collection of her husband's quotations, The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. (1983), and her autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. (1969).
Childhood in Heiberger
King was born April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, near Marion, Alabama. She spent her childhood on her parents' farm in Heiberger. The farm had been in the family since the Civil War, but the Scotts were not at all rich. They were so hard hit during the Depression that the children picked cotton to help earn money. There were three children Edythe, Coretta, and Obie. Obie was named after his father, Obediah Scott, a resourceful man who was the first black person in the district to own a truck and who eventually opened a country store. Their mother, Bernice (McMurray) Scott, was also a strong character.
As a young child, King walked five miles each day to attend the one-room Crossroads School. When she was older, she studied at Lincoln High School in Marion, nine miles away. Since this was too far to walk, her mother hired a bus and drove all the black students in the area to and from school a most unusual course of action for a black woman in the 1930s. The alternative would have been for the children to stay in Marion all week, returning home only at weekends, but Mrs. Scott did not want her children to be away from home so much.
King inherited a love of music from her mother, and at Lincoln High School she learned to play the trumpet and piano, and sang as a soloist at school recitals. An intelligent and hardworking student, she did well in her schoolwork too and was at the top of her class when she graduated in 1945. She then enrolled at Antioch College, Ohio, where her sister Edythe had been the first fulltime black student to live on campus.
Student in the North
At Antioch College, King majored in music and education. She also took part in the college's work-study program, acting as a camp counsellor, library assistant, and nursery school attendant. The fact that she was African American was not a barrier in any of these roles, but when she began to teach as part of her education course, she suddenly found her way blocked. Ordinarily, the education students did their practice teaching in the local public schools, but these schools had no black teachers and would not accept her. Her protests fell on deaf ears, even when she appealed to the college president, and in the end she had to do her teaching at the Antioch Demonstration School.
During this time, King was also a music student, learning the violin as well as studying singing and piano. She sang in the choir at the Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Ohio, and gave her first solo concert there in 1948. By the time she graduated in 1951, she had decided to become a professional singer rather than a schoolteacher and had been accepted by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Although King had a scholarship to cover her tuition at the conservatory, it did not pay for anything else, and she barely scraped by during her first year in Boston. To pay for her bed and breakfast, she cleaned the stairwells of the house she lived in, and for supper she usually made do with peanut butter and crackers. The following year was easier, because she received state aid from Alabama, but she still had to watch every penny.
While studying at the conservatory she met Martin Luther King Jr., who was also a student in Boston at the time, and they were married in 1953. The following year, after Coretta Scott King had graduated from the conservatory, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr. began his work as a minister.
In marrying a man committed to civil rights, King knew that she would not live the life of a quiet minister's wife. Their first child, Yolanda (Yoki), was born in 1955, just two weeks before the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. With the boycott came danger the King house was bombed in 1956 and from then on King had to be constantly alert on behalf of her children as well as her husband. The Kings were to have three more children: Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice.
The next few years saw Coretta King sharing as full partner in her husband's work, walking beside him in marches, travelling abroad with him, and giving speeches when he was unable to do so. She also made her own personal contribution. On behalf of the Women's Strike for Peace, she was a delegate at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1962, and she often gave concerts on behalf of the civil rights movement, for she was still keeping up with her music.
When her husband was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, Coretta King took it for granted that she would continue his work. Just four days after his death she led a march of fifty thousand people through the streets of Memphis, and later that year she took his place in the Poor People's March to Washington.
Carries on the work
The following year, King traveled to India to accept an award that had been granted to her husband the previous year, and on the way there she visited Italy, where she was given a special audience by the Pope. She also stopped off in Britain, where she preached at St. Paul's Cathedral probably the first woman ever to do so. However, King's main concern in 1969 was the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she planned to create in Atlanta, Georgia.
Over the years, King has worked hard to raise funds for the center, which now covers three full blocks and houses a library and archives of the civil rights movement. King oversaw the center, which succeeded in achieving her other major goal to get her husband's birthday honored as a national holiday. She has a third goal too, and this is a continuing one, for she continues to speak out against injustice, especially racial injustice, doing what she can to make her husband's dream of fairness and equality come true.
Reexamining the past
In recent years the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. has come back under examination. James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin, died in 1998 still serving his sentence for the murder, but swearing his innocence. The King family began publicly expressing doubts that James Earl Ray had acted alone. Coretta Scott King and her son Dexter King appealed to Attorney General Janet Reno and to President Bill Clinton for a national commission investigating the assassination. When Reno granted a limited Justice Department review, Coretta Scott King brought before her a collection of evidence of a conspiracy to kill her husband that she had amassed through the years. After a seven-month investigation, however, a Memphis District Attorney concluded that there was no reason to believe that Ray had not killed King and that it appeared he had acted alone.
The King family, not satisfied with these findings, filed a wrongful death suit against a former restaurant owner who says he was paid to plan the killing. In December 1999, a Tennessee jury found that the 1968 assassination was the result of a conspiracy and had not been accomplished by a single killer.