Human Rights Activist and Leader 1927- 2006
Coretta Scott King was one of the most influential women leaders in our world. Prepared by her family, education, and personality for a life committed to social justice and peace, she entered the world stage in 1955 as wife of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a leading participant in the American Civil Rights Movement. Her remarkable partnership with Dr. King resulted not only in four children, who became dedicated to carrying forward their parent’s work, but also in a life devoted to the highest values of human dignity in service to social change. Mrs. King traveled throughout the world speaking out on behalf of racial and economic justice, women’s and children’s rights, gay and lesbian dignity, religious freedom, the needs of the poor and homeless, full-employment, health care, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and environmental justice. She lent her support to pro-democracy movements world-wide and consulted with many world leaders, including Corazon Aquino, Kenneth Kaunda, and Nelson Mandela.
Born and raised in Marion, Alabama, Coretta Scott graduated valedictorian from Lincoln High School. She received a B.A. in music and education from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and then went on to study concert singing at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a degree in voice and violin. While in Boston she met Martin Luther King, Jr. who was then studying for his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. They were married on June 18, 1953, and in September 1954 took up residence in Montgomery, Alabama, with Coretta Scott King assuming the many responsibilities of pastor’s wife at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
During Dr. King’s career, Mrs. King devoted most of her time to raising their four children: Yolanda Denise (1955), Martin Luther, III (1957), Dexter Scott (1961), and Bernice Albertine (1963). From the earliest days, however, she balanced mothering and Movement work, speaking before church, civic, college, fraternal and peace groups. She conceived and performed a series of favorably-reviewed Freedom Concerts which combined prose and poetry narration with musical selections and functioned as significant fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the direct action organization of which Dr. King served as first president. In 1957, she and Dr. King journeyed to Ghana to mark that country’s independence. In 1958, they spent a belated honeymoon in Mexico, where they observed first-hand the immense gulf between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King spent nearly a month in India on a pilgrimage to disciples and sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964, she accompanied him to Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even prior to her husband’s public stand against the Vietnam War in 1967, Mrs. King functioned as liaison to peace and justice organizations, and as mediator to public officials on behalf of the unheard.
After her husband’s assassination in 1968, Mrs. King founded and devoted great energy and commitment to building and developing programs for the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a living memorial to her husband’s life and dream. Situated in the Freedom Hall complex encircling Dr. King’s tomb, The King Center is today located inside of a 23-acre national historic park which includes his birth home, and which hosts over one million visitors a year.
As founding President, Chair, and Chief Executive Officer, she dedicated herself to providing local, national and international programs that have trained tens of thousands of people in Dr. King’s philosophy and methods; she guided the creation and housing of the largest archives of documents from the Civil Rights Movement; and, perhaps her greatest legacy after establishing The King Center itself, Mrs. King spearheaded the massive educational and lobbying campaign to establish Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday. In 1983, an act of Congress instituted the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission, which she chaired for its duration. And in January 1986, Mrs. King oversaw the first legal holiday in honor of her husband–a holiday which has come to be celebrated by millions of people world-wide and, in some form, in over 100 countries.
Coretta Scott King tirelessly carried the message of nonviolence and the dream of the beloved community to almost every corner of our nation and globe. She led goodwill missions to many countries in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia. She spoke at many of history’s most massive peace and justice rallies. She served as a Women’s Strike for Peace delegate to the seventeen-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1962. She was the first woman to deliver the class day address at Harvard, and the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
A life-long advocate of interracial coalitions, in 1974 Mrs. King formed a broad coalition of over 100 religious, labor, business, civil and women’s rights organizations dedicated to a national policy of full employment and equal economic opportunity, as Co-Chair of both the National Committee for Full Employment and the Full Employment Action Council. In 1983, she brought together more than 800 human rights organizations to form the Coalition of Conscience, sponsors of the 20th Anniversary March on Washington, until then the largest demonstration ever held in our nation’s capital. In 1987, she helped lead a national Mobilization Against Fear and Intimidation in Forsyth County, Georgia. In 1988, she re-convened the Coalition of Conscience for the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington. In preparation for the Reagan-Gorbachev talks, in 1988 she served as head of the U.S. delegation of Women for a Meaningful Summit in Athens, Greece; and in 1990, as the USSR was redefining itself, Mrs. King was co-convener of the Soviet-American Women’s Summit in Washington, DC.
In 1985 Mrs. King and three of her children, Yolanda, Martin III and Bernice were arrested at the South African embassy in Washington, DC, for protesting against apartheid. Her son, Dexter Scott King currently serves as Chairman of The Board of Directors. Her son Martin Luther King III served as The King Center’s President & CEO and her daughter Bernice as Secretary of the Board of Directors and as Chief Executive Officer of the King Center.
One of the most influential African-American leaders of her time, Mrs. King received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities; authored three books and a nationally-syndicated newspaper column; and served on and helped found dozens of organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation, and the Black Leadership Roundtable.
During her lifetime, Mrs. King dialogued with heads of state, including prime ministers and presidents, as well as participating in protests alongside rank and file working people of all races. She met with many great spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. She witnessed the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords. She stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. A woman of wisdom, compassion and vision, Coretta Scott King tried to make ours a better world and, in the process, made history.
Mrs. King died in 2006. A few days after her death, thousands of Atlantans stood in line in the pouring sleet to pay their respects to her at a viewing in Ebenezer Baptist Church. She is today interred alongside her husband in a memorial crypt in the reflecting pool of The King Center’s Freedom Hall Complex, visited by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world year-round. The inscription on the crypt memorializing her life of service is from I Corinthians 13:13 –“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”