In Praise of Coretta Scott King
The annual celebration of Martin Luther Kings leadership and ideals helps
reminds us how far we have come as a nation in dealing with profound
issues of civil rights and social justiceand how far we still have to
go. Providing all people with equal opportunities to pursue their dreams
and fulfill their potential remains an urgent hope and inspiring goal.
have been more steadfast in promoting the gospel of love and redemption
than Coretta Scott King. Since Dr. Kings murder in 1968, his
remarkable widow has energetically sustained her husbands work,
challenging the nation and the world to see that his spirit never
Coretta Scott was born in 1927 near Marion, Alabama.
Raised on a cotton farm, she and her two siblings walked five miles each
day to attend the one-room all-black Crossroads School.
was a bright, conscientious student who finished at the top of her high
school class, earning a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio, where
she majored in music and volunteered on behalf of various community
projects. An inscription on a statue at Antioch College shaped her
outlook then and since:Be ashamed to die until youve won some victory
After graduating from Antioch in 1951, Coretta
Scott decided to become a professional singer and enrolled in Bostons
New England Conservatory of Music. There she met Martin Luther King,
Jr., a short, stocky doctoral student at Boston University remarkable
for his earnest demeanor. He displayed an air of excited gravity and
precocious maturity. After their first date, King told Coretta that the
four things I look for in a wife are character, intelligence,
personality, and beauty. You have them all. They married in 1953.
following year, after Coretta graduated from the conservatory, they
moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where Dr. King began his work as a
minister. As Dr. King assumed leadership of the bus boycott and the
larger civil rights movement, Coretta took responsibility for raising
their four children. It was not easy. In 1956, white supremacists bombed
the Kings home in Montgomery, and Coretta and her first child narrowly
By the late 1950s, the responsibilities of
national leadership required Dr. King to spend more and more time
traveling, and Coretta grew accustomed to his long absences. She also
was forced to accommodate his complex psyche. Dr. King was an
extraordinary leader with deep religious convictions, but he was no
saint; he was a many-faceted personality, spurred by the highest of
ideals, yet tormented by relentless insecurities, character flaws, and
wayward behavior. I am a troubled soul, he confessed on more than one
Where Dr. King roiled with psychological turbulence,
Coretta Scott King radiated a majestic poise. She became a full partner
in her husbands work, walking beside him in marches, traveling abroad
with him, giving speeches on his behalf, and adjusting to his long
absences. She was always more of an activist than Martin, says Andrew
Young, one of Dr. Kings lieutenants. Although people didnt realize
it, the action part was always difficult for him. He wanted to preach
and reason things out. Coretta wanted to march.
When Dr. King
was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in
April 1968, Coretta immediately resolved to continue his work and
promote his ideals. Just four days after the shooting she led a march of
fifty thousand people through the streets of Memphis, and later that
year she took his place in the Poor Peoples March to Washington.
1969 she announced the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center
for Nonviolent Social Change near his birthplace in Atlanta. Later she
spearheaded the efforts to have her husbands birthday, January 15,
honored as a national holiday. She was at President Ronald Reagans side
when he signed the bill creating the King holiday in 1983. She has also
helped create or lead many more organizations, including the Full
Employment Action Council, the Black Leadership Forum, the National
Black Coalition for Voter Participation, and the Black Leadership
Now in her mid-seventies, Coretta Scott King
continues to be an eloquent crusader for social justice and nonviolent
change. During a life that has experienced tragedy, travail, and trauma,
she has been remarkable for her dignity and magnanimity.
her fallen husband, she has become an iconic symbol of the civil rights
movement. Yet Coretta Scott King deserves to be remembered as the
remarkable person she is and not be
embalmed in myth. She has achieved and overcome so much, yet in the
process has nourished the grace to forgive and the strength to love.
am often identified as the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., she
recently noted. Sometimes I am also identified as a civil rights leader
or a human rights activist. While these designations are factually
correct, I would also like to be thought of as a complex,
three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of
experiences, much like everyone else yet unique in my own way . . .
much like everyone else.