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Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King 1964.jpg
King in 1964
Coretta Scott

(1927-04-27)April 27, 1927
Died January 30, 2006(2006-01-30) (aged 78)
Resting place King Center for Nonviolent Social Change
Education Antioch College (BA)
New England Conservatory of Music (BM)
  • Activist
  • author
Political party Democratic
(m. 1953; died 1968)
Relatives Yolanda Renee King (granddaughter)
Alveda King (niece)
Awards Gandhi Peace Prize

Coretta Scott King (née Scott; April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006) was an American author, activist, and civil rights leader and the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. from 1953 until his death. King was also a singer who often incorporated music into her civil rights work.

King played a prominent role in the years after her husband's assassination in 1968, when she took on the leadership of the struggle for racial equality herself and became active in the Women's Movement. King founded the King Center, and sought to make his birthday a national holiday. She finally succeeded when Ronald Reagan signed legislation which established Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on November 2, 1983.

She later broadened her scope to include both advocacy for LGBTQ rights and opposition to apartheid. King became friends with many politicians before and after Martin's death, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Robert F. Kennedy. Her telephone conversation with John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential election has been credited by historians for mobilizing African-American voters.

Early years and education

Coretta Scott was born in Heiberger, Alabama. She was the third of four children of Obadiah Scott (1899–1998) and Bernice McMurry Scott (1904–1996). Coretta's mother was known for her musical talent and singing voice.

Obie, Coretta's father, was one of the first black people in their town to own a vehicle. Before starting his own businesses, he worked as a policeman. Along with his wife, he ran a clothing shop far from their home and later opened a general store. He also owned a lumber mill, which was burned down by white neighbors after Scott refused to sell his mill to a white logger.

At age 10, Coretta worked to increase the family's income. The Scott family had owned a farm since the American Civil War, but were not particularly wealthy. During the Great Depression the Scott children picked cotton to help earn money and shared a bedroom with their parents.

Her brother Obadiah thought she always "tried to excel in everything she did." Her sister Edythe believed her personality was like that of their grandmother Cora McLaughlin Scott, after whom she was named. Though lacking formal education themselves, Coretta Scott's parents intended for all of their children to be educated. Coretta quoted her mother as having said, "My children are going to college, even if it means I only have but one dress to put on."

The Scott children attended a one-room elementary school 5 miles (8 km) from their home and were later bused to Lincoln Normal School. Coretta Scott graduated valedictorian from Lincoln Normal School in 1945, where she played trumpet and piano, sang in the chorus, and participated in school musicals and enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio during her senior year at Lincoln. After being accepted to Antioch, she applied for the Interracial Scholarship Fund for financial aid.

While in college, Coretta became active in the nascent civil rights movement; she joined the Antioch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the college's Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr NYWTS 5
Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther King in 1964.

Coretta transferred out of Antioch when she won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It was while studying singing at that school with Marie Sundelius that she met Martin Luther King Jr.

Two weeks after meeting Scott, King wrote to his mother that he had met his wife. On Valentine's Day 1953, the couple announced their plans to marry in the Atlanta Daily World. They were married on June 18, 1953.

After completing her degree in voice and piano at the New England Conservatory, she moved with her husband to Montgomery, Alabama, in September 1954.

Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther, Coretta Scott and Yolanda Denise King, 1956
King with her husband and daughter Yolanda in 1956

On September 1, 1954, Martin became the full-time pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King's devotion to the cause while giving up on her own musical ambitions would become symbolic of the actions of African-American women during the movement. The couple moved into the church's parsonage on South Jackson Street shortly after this. Coretta became a member of the choir and taught Sunday school, as well as participating in the Baptist Training Union and Missionary Society. She made her first appearance at the First Baptist Church on March 6, 1955, where according to E. P. Wallace, she "captivated her concert audience".

The Kings' first child was born on November 17, 1955, and was named Yolanda at Coretta's insistence.

Coretta took an active role in advocating for civil rights legislation. On April 25, 1958, King made her first appearance at a concert that year at Peter High School Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. With a performance sponsored by the Omicron Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, King changed a few songs in the first part of the show but still continued with the basic format used two years earlier at the New York gala as she told the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. The concert was important for Coretta as a way to continue her professional career and participate in the movement. The concert gave the audience "an emotional connection to the messages of social, economic, and spiritual transformation."

On February 3, 1959, Mr. and Mrs. King and Lawrence D. Reddick started a five-week tour of India. The three were invited to hundreds of engagements. During their trip, Coretta used her singing ability to enthuse crowds during their month-long stay. The two returned to the United States on March 10, 1959.

Assassination of her husband and early widowhood

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Two days after her husband's death, King spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church and made her first statement on his views since he had died. She said her husband told their children, "If a man had nothing that was worth dying for, then he was not fit to live." She brought up his ideals and the fact that he may be dead, but concluded that "his spirit will never die."

Coretta Scott King eventually broadened her focus to include women's rights, LGBT rights, economic issues, world peace, and various other causes. As early as December 1968, she called for women to "unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war", during a Solidarity Day speech. On April 27, 1968, King spoke at an anti-war demonstration in Central Park in place of her husband. King used notes taken from her husband's pockets upon his death, which included the "Ten Commandments on Vietnam".

As a leader of the movement, King founded the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. She served as the center's president and CEO from its inception until she passed the reins of leadership to son Dexter Scott King. Removing herself from leadership, allowed her to focus on writing, public speaking and spend time with her parents.

Later life and death

Tombstone for Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King at MLK Historic Site in Atlanta
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King sarcophagus within the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

In August 2005, King suffered a stroke which paralyzed her right side and left her unable to speak; five months later, she died of respiratory failure due to complications from ovarian cancer. Her funeral was attended by some 10,000 people, including U.S. presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. She was temporarily buried on the grounds of the King Center until being interred next to her husband. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame, the National Women's Hall of Fame, and was the first African American to lie in state at the Georgia State Capitol.

Opposition to apartheid

During the 1980s, Coretta Scott King reaffirmed her long-standing opposition to apartheid, participating in a series of sit-in protests in Washington, D.C., that prompted nationwide demonstrations against South African racial policies.

King had a 10-day trip to South Africa in September 1986. On September 9, 1986, she cancelled meeting President P. W. Botha and Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. The next day, she met with Allan Boesak. The UDF leadership, Boesak and Winnie Mandela had threatened to avoid a meeting King if she met with Botha and Buthelezi. She also met with Winnie Mandela that day, and called it "one of the greatest and most meaningful moments of my life." Nelson Mandela was still being imprisoned in Pollsmoor Prison after being transferred from Robben Island in 1982. Prior to leaving the United States for the meeting, King drew comparisons between the civil rights movement and Mandela's case. Upon her return to the United States, she urged Reagan to approve economic sanctions against South Africa.


Coretta Scott King was a long-time advocate for world peace. King was an advocate of non-violent direct action to achieve social change. In 1957, King was one of the founders of The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (now called Peace Action), and she spoke in San Francisco while her husband spoke in New York at the major anti-Vietnam war march on April 15, 1967, organized by the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

King was vocal in her opposition to capital punishment and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The King Center

Established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King, The King Center is the official memorial dedicated to the advancement of the legacy and ideas of Martin Luther King Jr., leader of a nonviolent movement for justice, equality, and peace.

Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom

In 2005, King gifted the use of her name to her alma mater, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, to create the Coretta Scott King Center as an experiential learning resource to address issues of race, class, gender, diversity, and social justice for the campus and the surrounding community. The center opened in 2007 on the Antioch College campus.

The center lists its mission as "The Coretta Scott King Center facilitates learning, dialogue, and action to advance social justice", and its vision as "To transform lives, the nation and the world by cultivating change agents, collaborating with communities, and fostering networks to advance human rights and social justice."


Coretta was viewed during her lifetime and posthumously as having strived to preserve her husband's legacy. The King Center, which she created the year of his assassination, allowed her husband's tomb to be memorialized.

Coretta is seen as being primarily responsible for the creation of the federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The holiday is now observed in all fifty states and has been since 2000.

Portrayals in film

Recognition and tributes

Coretta Scott King was the recipient of various honors and tributes both before and after her death. She received honorary degrees from many institutions, including Princeton University, Duke University, and Bates College. She was honored by both of her alma maters in 2004, receiving a Horace Mann Award from Antioch College and an Outstanding Alumni Award from the New England Conservatory of Music.

In 1970, the American Library Association began awarding a medal named for Coretta Scott King to outstanding African-American writers and illustrators of children's literature.

In 1978, Women's Way awarded King with their first Lucretia Mott Award for showing a dedication to the advancement of women and justice similar to Lucretia Mott's.

Many individuals and organizations paid tribute to Scott King following her death, including U.S. President George W. Bush, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Black Justice Coalition, and her alma mater Antioch College.

In 1983 she received the Four Freedoms Award for the Freedom of Worship. She received the Key of Life award from the NAACP. In 1987 she received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.

In 1997, Coretta Scott King was the recipient of the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

In 2004, Coretta Scott King was awarded the prestigious Gandhi Peace Prize by the Government of India.

In 2006, the Jewish National Fund, the organization that works to plant trees in Israel, announced the creation of the Coretta Scott King forest in the Galilee region of Northern Israel, with the purpose of "perpetuating her memory of equality and peace", as well as the work of her husband.

In 2007, The Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy (CSKYWLA) was opened in Atlanta, Georgia. At its inception, the school served girls in grade 6 with plans for expansion to grade 12 by 2014. CSKYWLA is a public school in the Atlanta Public Schools system. Among the staff and students, the acronym for the school's name, CSKYWLA (pronounced "see-skee-WAH-lah"), has been coined as a protologism to which this definition has given – "to be empowered by scholarship, non-violence, and social change." That year was also the first observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day following her death, and she was also honored.

Super Bowl XL was dedicated to King and Rosa Parks. Both were memorialized with a moment of silence during the pregame ceremonies. The children of both Parks and King then helped Tom Brady with the ceremonial coin toss. In addition two choirs representing the states of Georgia (King's home state) and Alabama (Park's home state) accompanied Dr. John, Aretha Franklin and Aaron Neville in the singing of the National Anthem.

She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 2009. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2011.

In January 2023, The Embrace was unveiled in Boston; this sculpture commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and depicts four intertwined arms, representing the hug they shared after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Congressional resolutions

Upon the news of her death, moments of reflection, remembrance, and mourning began around the world. In the United States Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist presented Senate Resolution 362 on behalf of all U.S. Senators, with the afternoon hours filled with respectful tributes throughout the U.S. Capitol.

On August 31, 2006, following a moment of silence in memoriam of the death of Coretta Scott King, the United States House of Representatives presented House Resolution 655 in honor of her legacy. In an unusual action, the resolution included a grace period of five days in which further comments could be added to it.

Interesting facts about Coretta Scott King

  • King has been referred to as "First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement".
  • Coretta described herself as a tomboy as a child, primarily because she could climb trees and recalled wrestling boys.
  • When Coretta first met Martin Luther King Jr., she was surprised by how short he was.
  • In January 1969, King was awarded the Universal Love Award. King became the first non-Italian to receive the award.
  • She published her memoirs, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1969.

Coretta Scott King quotes

  • "There is a spirit and a need and a man at the beginning of every great human advance. Every one of these must be right for that particular moment of history, or nothing happens."
  • "If you use weapons of war to bring about peace, you're going to have more war and destruction."
  • "Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation."
  • "If you don't use your power for positive change, you are, indeed, part of the problem."

Images for kids

See also

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