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Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King

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Although best known as the wife of 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) established a distinguished career in activism in her own right. Working side-by-side with her husband throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and worked to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., was published in 1969.

Following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, she continued their work, founding the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, GA. She served as the center’s president and chief executive officer from its inception.

In 1980, a 23-acre site around King’s birthplace was designated for use by the King Center. The following year, a museum complex was dedicated on the site.

King also was behind the fifteen-year fight to have her husband’s birthday instituted as a national holiday—President Ronald Reagan finally signed the bill in 1983.

In 1995, King passed the reins of the King Center over to her son, Dexter, but she remains in the public eye. She wrote regular articles on social issues and published a syndicated column. She had been a regular commentator on CNN since 1980. In 1997, she called for a retrial for her husband’s alleged assassin, James Earl Ray. Ray died in prison before the trial could begin.

Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. had four children: Martin Luther King III, who served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Yolanda, an actress; Bernice, a lawyer and Baptist minister; and Dexter; who runs the King Library and Archive. King suffered a heart attack and stroke in August 2005; she died on January 30, 2006.

Biography courtesy of

Coretta Scott King was just as much an advocate for Civil Rights as her husband.In 1957 Mr. and Mrs. King were invited to fly to Ghana to take part in the festivities of celebrating the country’s independence. There she gave speeches dealing with independence and Civil Rights in not just America but all throughout Africa too. “We were so proud of our African heritage, and saw in Ghana a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of all our people. At this moment the Ghanaians were free free of political bonds, though the shadow of outside economic control and manipulation lingered from their colonial heritage” stated Coretta Scott King. The role she took on aside her husband complemented many issues that Dr. King was dealing with. (King)

In 1964 when Dr. King had been put in jail she had appealed to Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy for help with her husband’s release. Help from John F. Kennedy helped him receive more votes from the black community to help him eventually win the presidential election. “As I was getting dressed to go to see Mr. Abram, the telephone rang. The person at the other end said, “May I speak to Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Just a minute, Mrs. King, for Senator Kennedy.” Senator John F. Kennedy was in the final days of his campaign for President of the United States. I waited a few seconds, and a voice made familiar by scores of television broadcasts said, “Good morning, Mrs. King. This is Senator Kennedy.” We exchanged greetings, and then Senator Kennedy said, “I want to express to you my concern about your husband. I know this must be very hard for you. I understand you are expecting a baby, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me” (King 169-67). This was vital because without this phone call, who knows what turn the Civil Rights Movement could have taken.

During the mid-1960’s, which was the climax of the Civil Rights Movement her efforts picked up tremendously. As King played his role, she did other things like participated in freedom concerts, where she sang and recited poetry, where all the proceeds were divided between the Southern Council Leadership Conference. She served as a Women’s Strike for Peace Delegate at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. While her husband was jailed once more and had other engagements she would fill in for him when he would not be able to attend. Lastly, once Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, Coretta Scott went to Memphis and marched just a couple of days later. “You see, I feel strongly that Martin’s work must go on. In the same way that I had given him all the support I could during his lifetime, I was even more determined to do so now that he was no longer with us. Because his task was not finished, I felt that I must rededicate myself to the completion of his work. Also I felt that not only must I do this, but that if enough individuals joined in the work, Martin’s dream would be realized, and his death will have served the redemptive purpose which he talked about so often” (King 329). Coretta Scott went on to take on her husband’s main role during the Civil Rights Movement after the time of his death.

She even went on to open up the King Center in 1981 in Atlanta, Georgia. The king center is home circles Dr. King’s tomb. It also happens to be part of a 23-acre national historic site that also includes Dr. King’s birthplace and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his dad had the opportunity preach. (Academy)

One of her last major effort that dealt with her husband was the push for trying to establish her husband’s birthday as a federal holiday. As head of the King Center she pushed the bill to be passed and on November 3, 1983, President Reagan signs bill establishing January 15 th , Dr. King’s birthday or every third Monday of the month as Martin Luther King Jr. day. Also that year as an anniversary to Dr. King’s March on Washington Coretta Scott King led another March on Washington of her own. (King Center)

Little Known Black History Fact: Coretta Scott King

While the late Coretta Scott King will forever be undoubtedly tethered to her famous husband, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she became just as vital to the ascension of civil rights. The activist and author’s birthday is today.

Coretta Scott was born on this day in 1927, growing up in Marion, Alabama. As a girl, she endured the racial and social injustice common in the deep South while working on a cotton farm with her family. A talented vocalist and musician, she went on to study music at Antioch College before winning a scholarship to attend the New England Conservatory of Music.

It was there that she came across a charismatic young minister who was studying theology at nearby Boston University. Rev. King inquired about young woman who attended NEC and was eventually introduced to his future wife, but according to her, she wasn’t initially interested. But ultimately romance blossomed which culminated into marriage in 1953, and thus she became the First Lady of the civil rights movement.

While largely playing a complimentary before her husband’s assassination in 1968, just days after his death Mrs. King emerged as a powerful advocate for the oppressed and underrepresented.

With a brave face and while enduring the grief of losing her husband, King carried the mission of the movement and expanded it to included women’s rights, LGBT equality, and supporting anti-apartheid efforts. She also helped to create the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, better known as the King Center, in Atlanta where the couple’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, serves as CEO.

This week, NEC unveiled a bust of Mrs. King titled “The Continuation of Change,” that will be on permanent display at the school where she earned a degree in voice and piano.

About Mrs. King

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.

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.”

Coretta Scott King and American Intellectual History

Normally, around this time of year, we at S-USIH would post something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and American intellectual history. Considering that today is King’s actual birthday—we as a nation observe it tomorrow—I highly recommend reading works on King and intellectual history. Whether it is Richard King’s book on civil rights history and intellectual history, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom, or the still-underrated From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson, and numerous works in between, King’s legacy within intellectual history is one that has been explored time and again by historians. Not to mention the fact that King’s legacy as shaped by American memory is also slowly being explored by historians, and King offers plenty for intellectual historians to explore.

Today, though, I would like to take a moment to talk about Coretta Scott King. Her own leadership in the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after MLK’s death—is worth its own monograph length work. After all, Coretta Scott was already an activist and thinker long before she met Martin Luther King, Jr.

Examining Coretta Scott King’s post-1968 career, for example, reminds us that many civil rights activists did not leave the political battlefield once the 1960s ended. On the contrary, leaders such as Coretta Scott King played an integral role in a variety of political and cultural fights in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. For example, think of the role Coretta Scott King played in the full employment fight of the 1970s—oft forgotten today, but a galvanizing campaign for many American progressives during the age of stagflation. David Stein’s article is the best treatment of the subject. To create an artificial line between the campaign for racial civil rights and economic rights in this, or any other era, would be to foster a separation of struggles that most activists involved in those debates simply did not see. (Her opposition to the Vietnam War, staying with the movement as a vocal reminder of not just her husband’s coming out against the war in 1967, but standing up for the vast majority of African Americans who turned against the conflict by the end of the 1960s, is another example of how the civil rights and left-wing movements of recent American history often coalesced around key issues.)

Two other areas where Coretta Scott King comes to the fore in American intellectual history are the anti-Apartheid movement and the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Seeing her as a symbol of the still-powerful civil rights leadership that was involved in the 1970s and 1980s in fighting for sanctions against South Africa is important. Equally important is seeing King as part of a left counter to the Reagan presidency—something that was captured in the fight for MLK, Jr. Day. As intellectual historians, we need to consider Coretta Scott King’s centrality to both the post-1965 Civil Rights Movement and the broader American Left of this era.

This is in no way to take away from Coretta’s contribution to the women’s rights movement. Her presence at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas was a highlight of an event designed to press forward national support for the Equal Rights Amendment.[1] Fast forward decades later, and Coretta Scott King’s outspoken support for LGBTQ rights—before much of the African American community followed suit—was an important moment in that movement’s fight for social and legal equality.

There are a few reasons for why intellectual historians have yet to treat Coretta Scott King as an important figure in recent American history. Most notably, the problem of getting access to her papers precludes any deep archival research. Further, who we consider to be worthy of treatment as a figure of intellectual history continues to be an issue. As Holly Genovese raised a few weeks ago—and as was admirably treated by several specialists in the realm of African American women’s history in a landmark collection—we need to be sensitive to changing definitions of who is “worthy” to be examined by historians as intellectuals. We can debate whether thinking of Coretta Scott King as an “intellectual” is going a step too far. I would say no, because her thinking on how to shape the legacy of her late husband, not to mention her capable use of memory to fight for social and political issues dear to her, means that she could strategize and craft civil religion with the best of them.

Coretta Scott King was important to intellectuals in the post-World War II era, as a symbol and as activist in her own right. Like Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King’s legacy has been distorted by national myth. It will be up to historians to recover the radical, activist Coretta Scott King. One hopes that the release of Coretta Scott King’s memoir, as told to journalist Barbara Reynolds, My Life, My Love, My Legacy will stoke some new interest in Coretta’s legacy, activism, and thinking. Anything less would be a loss for history, and a disservice to the messy, vibrant, and complicated history of America after World War II.

[1] The timing of this event was not random—1977 was also the International Women’s Year as designated by the United Nations, and was the high point of the fight for the ERA. After this, support for the amendment would be driven down by conservative forces galvanized across the nation, most notably by Phyllis Schlafly. Marjorie Spruill’s book, Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, due out at the end of February, will go into more detail about this momentous conference.

Continuing the Mission After His Death

In the aftermath of her husband&aposs assassination, Coretta founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, serving as the center&aposs president and the chief executive officer from its inception.ꂯter spurring the formation of what became the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, around his birthplace in Atlanta, she dedicated the new King Center complex on its grounds in 1981.

Coretta remained active through her demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, and by expressing her views as a syndicated columnist and contributor to CNN. She also saw the 15-year fight for formal recognition of her husband&aposs birthday come to fruition in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that established Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday.

Coretta passed the reins of the King Center over to her son Dexter in 1995 but remained in the public eye. In 1997, she called for a retrial for her husband&aposs alleged assassin, though Ray died in prison the following year.

Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)

The widow of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King became a forceful public figure and important leader in the civil rights movement. She made numerous contributions to the struggle for social justice and human rights throughout her life.

Coretta Scott was born the second of three children to Obadiah Scott and Bernice McMurray Scott in Heiberger, Alabama on April 27, 1927. She spent her childhood nearby on a farm owned by her family since the Civil War. During the Depression, Coretta and her siblings picked cotton in order to help support the family. This appeared to be the beginning of her determination to further her education.

After graduating at the top of her high school class in 1945, Scott enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Although Antioch was historically a white campus, Scott’s older sister had become the first fulltime black student to live on campus, and following in her footsteps, she majored in education and music. During her college years Scott faced racial discrimination when the Yellow Springs School Board refused to let her teach in a nearby elementary school. This incident ended her dreams of becoming a teacher. Instead in 1949 she applied to and was accepted by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. It was while attending the conservatory that she met Martin Luther King Jr., also a graduate student in Boston at that time.

Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. married on June 18, 1953. The following year they moved to Montgomery, Alabama where Martin Luther King Jr. began his work as a minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In 1955 Dr. King led the Montgomery bus boycott which initiated a new era of civil rights agitation. By marrying a man committed to civil rights, Coretta Scott King became an activist in her own right, sharing her husband’s work, walking beside him in marches, traveling with him to give speeches or giving them herself when he was unable to do so. She also began to develop her own reputation in social activism when she joined the Women’s Strike for Peace, a group formed in 1961 to support a ban on nuclear testing. King was also a delegate to the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1962. By this point Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. had four children.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, Coretta King was thrust into the national spotlight. She calmed local and national racial tensions by exuding quiet dignity and courage at his public funeral in Atlanta. Then just four days after his death, Coretta Scott King led a march of fifty thousand people through the streets of Memphis.

In 1969 Coretta King announced plans to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. The King Center is now the official memorial dedicated to the advancement of the legacy and ideas of Dr. King. She also led a 17-year national campaign to establish Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday. She finally succeeded in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan signed the proclamation. Coretta King was also involved in the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s. By the late 1990s she became an activist for HIV/AIDS prevention and a supporter of lesbian and gay rights.

Coretta Scott King suffered a stroke and heart attack in 2005. Never fully recovering, she passed away on January 20, 2006 at a rehabilitation center in Mexico.

Timeline: Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King – Wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Coretta Scott King was a renowned American civil rights activist, author and the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. She was most known for being very active and vocal in the civil rights movement which began in full force around the 1950s.

This timeline outlines the major events in the life of Coretta Scott King, a civil rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King Jr.

1927: Coretta Scott is born on April 27 in Marion, Alabama, U.S.

1945: Graduates from Lincoln Normal School

1952: Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta’s relationship blossoms.

1953: Coretta Scott marries Martin Luther King, Jr. on June 18 in a ceremony officiated by Martin Luther King, Sr (King Jr.’s father).

1954: Coretta moves with King to Montgomery, Alabama. King had accepted the pastor position in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Yolanda King (middle) pictured with her parents – Coretta King and MLK

1955: Coretta and MLK give birth to Yolanda on November 17. Yolanda is the first child of the couple.

On December 23, 1955: Gun shots rain down on the door of Coretta’s home. No one was hurt in the incident.

1956: As the Montgomery Bus Boycott intensifies, Coretta endures threatening letters from white supremacist groups.

January 30, 1956: An explosion occurs in front of Coretta’s home. The assailant sped away before witnesses could pick his number plate.

Coretta refuses to leave for Atlanta, preferring to stay and stand with King Jr.’s struggle.

1957: Coretta and MLK welcome their second child, Martin Luther King III, on October 23, 1957.

1958: Her role in the civil right movement becomes more pronounced.

September 20, 1958: Coretta and her husband take a five-week tour of India.

October, 1960: Coretta receives words of support during a telephone conversation with John F. Kennedy.

November, 1960: Coretta King and her family supports the presidential bid of JFK, seeing him as one who could help advance the civil rights of African Americans.

1961: Coretta and MLK welcome their third child, Dexter, who is born on January 30, 1961.

April, 1962: Partakes in the Women’s Strike for Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

March 28, 1963: Coretta’s fourth and last child is born. The child is named Bernice Albertine King.

November 1963: Attends a Women Strike for Peace rally in New York.

November 22, 1963: Coretta is informed about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Kings are shocked to the core about the passing of JFK, a strong ally in the Civil Rights Movement.

1964: Plays a crucial role in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.

February 1965: Coretta and Malcolm X discuss the current state of affairs in the civil rights movement. A few days later, Malcolm X gets assassinated.

March, 1965: Partakes in the historic Selma-to-Montgomery March.

January 1966: Chastises the civil rights movement for downplaying the contributions of women activists.

January 1968: Attends the Women Strike for Peace protest in Washington, D. C. The protest is attended by more than five thousand women, who call themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. The protest was largely in honor of Jeannette Rankin, the first female U.S. House of Representative.

April 4, 1968: Coretta’s life comes to a standstill with the news of the assassination of her husband Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.

The news of MLK’s death was broken to her by Jesse Jackson.

April 5, 1968: Coretta makes the journey to Memphis to bring home the body of her husband.

April 7, 1968: Gives a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

April 8, 1968: In spite of her loss, Coretta joins hands with sanitation workers in a march.

April 9, 1968: The funeral of MLK is held. The event was attended by the likes of Richard Nixon.

April 27, 1968: Partakes in an anti-war protest in Central Park, New York City.

June, 1968: Coretta learns of the death of another ally in the civil rights movement, Bobby Kennedy.

December, 1968: Issues such as women’s rights and rights of LGBT get incorporated into Coretta King’s activism. She also takes part in several initiatives to tackle poverty and war.

1969: Coretta King is thrust into leading the Civil Rights Movement after Josephine Baker declines to fill the shoes left behind by MLK.

January, 1969: Coretta takes a trip to India.

1969: Coretta King’s memoir, titled My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., is published.

1973: Attends the funeral of former US President Lyndon B. Johnson.

1980: Becomes a commentator for CNN.

1983: Calls on legislators on Capitol Hill to expand the Civil Rights Act to include the LGBT community.

1985: Coretta King and her children – Bernice and Martin Luther King III – take part in an anti-apartheid protest just outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C. The trio get arrested for their actions.

Coretta Scott King timeline

1986: After years of campaigning, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day becomes a federal holiday. The legislation backing the federal holiday was signed by President Ronald Reagan. Mrs King was in attendance.

March 8, 1986: Delivers a lecture about civil rights at the University of San Diego.

September 1986: Makes a trip South Africa where she meets the likes of Allan Boesak and Nelson Mandela.

January, 1993: Calls for peace protests across the nation over a missile strike on Iraq.

February, 1993: Praises FBI boss William S. Sessions for his efforts in restructuring the FBI and including ethnic minorities and women in the organization.

1995: Joins forces with Betty Shabazz and Myrlie Evers to encourage more than one million African American women to register for the presidential election.

1997: Delivers a speech at Loyola University (Lake Shore campus).

1997: Donates $5,000 to help in the rehabilitation of Betty Shabazz (the widow of Malcolm X) who had suffered burns from a fire incident in her home.

2005: The Coretta Scott King Center is established at Antioch College in Yellow Springs.

March 2005: Speaks at 40th anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights Movement in Selma.

April 2005: Coretta King’s health deteriorates as she is hospitalized with mild heart complications.

August 16, 2005: As a result of the stroke and heart attack she suffers, she loses control of the right side of her body. She is also unable to speak.

January 30, 2006: Coretta Scott King passes away at a rehabilitation center in Mexico. The cause of her death was a mix of respiratory failure and an ovarian cancer.

Coretta Scott King timeline

February 7, 2006: Coretta King’s funeral was attended by over 10,000 people, including five US presidents – Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. Also in attendance was then-Senator Barack Obama (later 44th U.S. President).

Per Coretta Scott King’s wishes, her body was interred next to her husband at the King Center.

Black Women Make History Too -- An Interview On Coretta Scott King

In January we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and now the country has moved into February -- Black History Month. We'll no doubt hear much more about Dr. King as celebrations and ceremonies unfold around the country. He was without question a great man, and left an enduring mark on our hearts and souls. But he was part of a team, and the other half of that team -- his wife Coretta Scott King -- made her own kind of history, with her husband and without him, both before and after his death.

Coretta Scott King was a peace activist, advocate for children, and champion of the poor long before her marriage, and long after it ended with the tragic assassination of her husband in 1968. But because she was the wife of a great man, her own participation in the American civil rights movement is often minimized.

Before her death in 2006, in preparation for a new biography, Coretta King met many times with Dr. Barbara Reynolds, one of the founding editors of USA Today, and the only woman and only African American on the paper's editorial board. I recently interviewed Dr. Reynolds on her time with Mrs. King for my radio show, Equal Time with Martha Burk. Some highlights:

MB: You started interviewing Mrs. King two years after the assassination. Had you known her before that, and how did you meet her?

BR: I was working at that time for the Chicago Tribune, and they sent me to Atlanta to do a cover story. Most of the male civil rights leaders didn't want to talk to me, because they were afraid I would write something negative [about their desire to usurp King's legacy]. But when I called Mrs. King she said "come on down and write about the work I'm doing at the King Center. Whatever you see, you can write about." She had nothing to hide -- she opened her life to me.

MB: She told you and that in Montgomery, she was tested and found she became stronger in a crisis, and that Martin came to understand he could trust her. What did she mean?

BR: What people don't really know is that Mrs. King was in the line of fire as much as he was. She was the one who answered the phone when racist whites would call and say "I'm going to kill you." She was the one alone with her baby when their house was bombed. This aspect of her life is not part of her profile as a leader -- but she said she told Martin she was tested alone, and could be trusted with trouble.

MB: You write that Coretta King was a full equal, and not merely the "woman behind the man."

BR: She wanted people to know that she was a co-partner in one of the greatest liberation struggles of our age. She wanted people to know that she had visions, she had dreams. She was actually in the movement before she married Martin -- she was a peace activist. That is what led him eventually to come out against the Vietnam war.

MB: Did she feel others treated her as his equal during his lifetime?

BR: You're talking about the 1960s. At that time men in the civil rights movement -- and men everywhere -- had a view that women should be at home. Even at the march on Washington when President Kennedy invited the leaders to the White House, the women were not invited. They were told to go back to their hotels. After the assassination she told me that many of the men told her she should step aside, and let them run things [in building the King Center].

MB: When the MLK memorial was dedicated on the mall in Washington last year, you wrote in the Washington Post that leaving Coretta Scott King completely out was a glaring omission. You said "telling one story without the other creates a flaw and imbalance, a scar on history."

BR: It is astounding that there is no plaque, no quote, no information at all about Coretta. Dr. King often said "If Coretta was not with me, she was only a heartbeat away." But there is still the problem in society of giving women their proper due. It exists, and it exists for her. It's a great memorial -- but I know that without her, it's like an empty space. MLK often wore a wedding ring, and even that is not there. It's this fight through life of being made invisible.

MB: Do you think Coretta Scott King's legacy will grow?

BR: It has to, because of her willingness to transcend racism and to reach out and speak for people for all causes. Her legacy has to go on, because so many people need to know what a true servant is. The threats on her life continued until the time she died. It was not a peaceful life, but it was a brave life.

Listen to the full interview here, including rare audio of Coretta Scott King's speech at the 1996 Atlanta gay rights rally.

W. E. B. Du Bois to Coretta Scott King: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb

Coretta Scott King (R) with Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson (L) in a march on the United Nations Plaza, New York City, Nov. 1, 1963. Source: © Bettmann/CORBIS.

By Vincent Intondi

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his strong opposition to the war in Vietnam, the media attacked him for straying outside of his civil rights mandate. In so many words, powerful interests told him: “Mind your own business.” In fact, African American leaders have long been concerned with broad issues of peace and justice—and have especially opposed nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this activism is left out of mainstream corporate-produced history textbooks.

On June 6, 1964, three Japanese writers and a group of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) arrived in Harlem as part of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission. Their mission: to speak out against nuclear proliferation.

Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American activist, organized a reception for the hibakusha at her home in the Harlem Manhattanville Housing Projects, with her friend Malcolm X. Malcolm said, “You have been scarred by the atom bomb. You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.” He went on to discuss his years in prison, education, and Asian history. Turning to Vietnam, Malcolm said, “If America sends troops to Vietnam, you progressives should protest.” He argued that “the struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” Malcolm X, like so many before him, consistently connected colonialism, peace, and the Black freedom struggle. Yet, students have rarely heard this story.

Focusing on African American history, too often textbooks reduce the Black freedom movement to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Rosa Parks and Dr. King are put in their neat categorical boxes and students are never taught the Black freedom struggle’s international dimensions, viewing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement as purely domestic phenomena unrelated to foreign affairs. However, Malcolm X joined a long list of African Americans who, from 1945 onward, actively supported nuclear disarmament. W. E. B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther Party were just a few of the many African Americans who combined civil rights with peace, and thus broadened the Black freedom movement and helped define it in terms of global human rights.

Writing in the Chicago Defender, poet Langston Hughes was among the first to publicly criticize using the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and the role race played in the decision. Years later, Hughes again used the Black press to raise awareness about the nuclear issue. He implored the U.S. not to use nuclear weapons in Korea, making clear that things would be different if Americans viewed people of color as human beings rather than an “Other.” In his view, racism, nuclear weapons, and colonialism were indeed inextricably linked.

Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, World Peace Congress, Paris, April 20, 1949. Source: Du Bois Papers/UMass Amherst Libraries.

If students learn about Du Bois at all, it is usually that he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or that he received a PhD from Harvard. However, a few weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Du Bois likened President Truman to Adolph Hitler, calling him “one of the greatest killers of our day.” He had traveled to Japan and consistently criticized the use of nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, fearing another Hiroshima in Korea, Du Bois led the effort in the Black community to eliminate nuclear weapons with the “Ban the Bomb” petition. Many students go through their entire academic careers and learn nothing of Du Bois’ work in the international arena.

Bayard Rustin speaking at the 1958 Anti-Nuclear Rally in England. Source: Contemporary Films.

If students ever hear the name Bayard Rustin, it is usually related to his work with the March on Washington. He has been tragically marginalized in U.S. history textbooks, in large part because of his homosexuality. However, Rustin’s body of work in civil rights and peace activism dates back to the 1930s. In 1959, during the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin not only fought institutional racism in the United States, but also traveled to Ghana to try to prevent France from testing its first nuclear weapon in Africa.

These days, some textbooks acknowledge Dr. King’s critique of the Vietnam War. However, King’s actions against nuclear weapons began a full decade earlier in the late 1950s. From 1957 until his death, through speeches, sermons, interviews, and marches, King consistently protested the use of nuclear weapons and war. King called for an end to nuclear testing asking, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-90 or atomic war?” Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, King called on the government to take some of the billions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons and use those funds to increase teachers’ salaries and build much needed schools in impoverished communities. Two years later, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King argued the spiritual and moral lag in our society was due to three problems: racial injustice, poverty, and war. He warned that in the nuclear age, society must eliminate racism or risk annihilation.

Letter from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament inviting Dr. King and Bayard Rustin to their mass march.

Dr. King’s wife largely inspired his antinuclear stance. Coretta Scott King began her activism as a student at Antioch College. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King worked with various peace organizations, and along with a group of female activists, began pressuring President Kennedy for a nuclear test ban. In 1962, Coretta King served as a delegate for Women Strike for Peace at a disarmament conference in Geneva that was part of a worldwide effort to push for a nuclear test ban treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Upon her return, King spoke at AME church in Chicago, saying: “We are on the brink of destroying ourselves through nuclear warfare . . . . The Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement must work together ultimately because peace and civil rights are part of the same problem.” Of course, Coretta was not alone. Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson, Lorraine Hansberry were just a few of the black women who spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons.

Each new school year students will hopefully open their textbooks to study the nuclear arms race and the Black Freedom Movement. However, most will not learn how these issues are connected. They will not learn of all those in the Civil Rights Movement who simultaneously fought for peace. But this must change, and soon. The scarring of war and poverty and racism that Malcolm X spoke of continues. It is time that students learn about the long history of activism that has challenged these deadly triplets.

This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series.

© 2015 The Zinn Education Project, a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Related Article

African American Leadership in the Fight for Nuclear Disarmament by Vincent Intondi. “Perhaps no congressperson fought more vehemently against Reagan’s nuclear policies more than the co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Ronald Dellums (D-CA).”

Vincent J. Intondi is an associate professor of history at Montgomery College and director of research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. He is the author of African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement(Stanford University Press, 2015).

Related Resources

Haiku and Hiroshima: Teaching About the Atomic Bomb

Teaching Activity. By Wayne Au. 3 pages. Rethinking Schools.
Lesson for high school students on the bombing of Hiroshima using the film Barefoot Gen and haiku.

African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement

Book – Non-fiction. By Vincent Intondi. 2015.
History of Black activists who fought for nuclear disarmament.

Watch the video: Coretta Scott King, Academy Class of 1997, Full Interview (June 2022).