Coretta Scott was born in Heiberger, Alabama and raised on the farm of her parents Bernice McMurry Scott, and Obadiah Scott, in Perry County, Alabama. She was exposed at an early age to the injustices of life in a segregated society. She walked five miles a day to attend the one-room Crossroad School in Marion, Alabama, while the white students rode buses to an all-white school closer by. Young Coretta excelled at her studies, particularly music, and was valedictorian of her graduating class at Lincoln High School. She graduated in 1945 and received a scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. As an undergraduate, she took an active interest in the nascent civil rights movement; she joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP, and the college’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees. She graduated from Antioch with a B.A. in music and education and won a scholarship to study concert singing at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
In Boston she met a young theology student, Martin Luther King, Jr., and her life was changed forever. They were married on June 18, 1953, in a ceremony conducted by the groom’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. Coretta Scott King completed her degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory and the young couple moved in September 1954 to Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin Luther King Jr. had accepted an appointment as Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
They were soon caught up in the dramatic events that triggered the modern civil rights movement. When Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white passenger, she was arrested for violating the city’s ordinances giving white passengers preferential treatment in public conveyances. The black citizens of Montgomery organized immediately in defense of Mrs. Parks, and under Martin Luther King’s leadership organized a boycott of the city’s buses. The Montgomery bus boycott drew the attention of the world to the continued injustice of segregation in the United States, and led to court decisions striking down all local ordinances separating the races in public transit. Dr. King’s eloquent advocacy of nonviolent civil disobedience soon made him the most recognizable face of the civil rights movement, and he was called on to lead marches in city after city, with Mrs. King at his side, inspiring the citizens, black and white, to defy the segregation laws.
The visibility of Dr. King’s leadership attracted fierce opposition from the supporters of institutionalized racism. In 1956, white supremacists bombed the King family home in Montgomery. Mrs. King and the couple’s first child narrowly escaped injury. The Kings had four children in all: Yolanda Denise; Martin Luther, III; Dexter Scott; and Bernice Albertine. Although the demands of raising a family had caused Mrs. King to retire from singing, she found another way to put her musical background to the service of the cause. She conceived and performed a series of critically acclaimed Freedom Concerts, combining poetry, narration and music to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement. Over the next few years, Mrs. King staged Freedom Concerts in some of America’s most distinguished concert venues, as fundraisers for the organization her husband had founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Dr. King’s fame spread beyond the United States, and he was increasingly seen not only as a leader of the American civil rights movement, but as the symbol of an international struggle for human liberation from racism, colonialism and all forms of oppression and discrimination. In 1957, Dr. King and Mrs. King journeyed to Africa to celebrate the independence of Ghana. In 1959, they made a pilgrimage to India to honor the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence had inspired them. Dr. King’s leadership of the movement for human rights was recognized on the international stage when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. In 1964, Mrs. King accompanied her husband when he traveled to Oslo, Norway to accept the Prize.
In the 1960s, Dr. King broadened his message and his activism to embrace causes of international peace and economic justice. Mrs. King found herself in increasing demand as a public speaker. She became 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. She served as a Women’s Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1962. Mrs. King became a liaison to international peace and justice organizations even before Dr. King took a public stand in 1967 against United States intervention in the Vietnam War.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Channeling her grief, Mrs. King concentrated her energies on fulfilling her husband’s work by building The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a living memorial to her husband’s life and dream. Years of planning, fundraising and lobbying, lay ahead, but Mrs. King would not be deterred, nor did she neglect direct involvement in the causes her husband had championed. In 1969 , Coretta Scott King published the first volume of her autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1970s, Mrs. King maintained her husband’s commitment to the cause of economic justice. In 1974 she formed the Full Employment Action Council, 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; Mrs. King served as Co-Chair of the Council.
In 1981, The King Center, the first institution built in memory of an African American leader, opened to the public. The Center is housed in the Freedom Hall complex encircling Dr. King’s tomb in Atlanta, Georgia. It is part of a 23-acre national historic site that also includes Dr. King’s birthplace and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his father both preached. The King Center Library and Archives houses the largest collection of documents from the Civil Rights era. The Center receives over one million visitors a year, and has trained tens of thousands of students, teachers, community leaders and administrators in Dr. King’s philosophy and strategy of nonviolence through seminars, workshops and training programs.
Mrs. King continued to serve the cause of justice and human rights; her travels took her throughout the world on goodwill missions to Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia. In 1983, she marked the 20th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington, by leading a gathering of more than 800 human rights organizations, the Coalition of Conscience, in the largest demonstration the capital city had seen up to that time.
Mrs. King led the successful campaign to establish Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, as a national holiday in the United States. By an Act of Congress, the first national observance of the holiday took place in 1986. Dr. King’s birthday is now marked by annual celebrations in over 100 countries. Mrs. King was invited by President Clinton to witness the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords in 1993. In 1985 Mrs. King and three of her children were arrested at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting against that country’s apartheid system of racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Ten years later, she stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he was sworn in as President of South Africa.
After 27 years at the helm of The King Center, Mrs. King turned over leadership of the Center to her son, Dexter Scott King, in 1995. She remained active in the causes of racial and economic justice, and in her remaining years devoted much of her energy to AIDS education and curbing gun violence. Although she died in 2006 at the age of 78, she remains an inspirational figure to men and women around the world.
-Academy of Achievement (Jan 31st, 2006)