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Coretta Scott King: Remembering a Georgia Hero

April 27, 2017
Black and white photo of Coretta King with her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., marching with a crowd.

Coretta Scott King — civil and human rights activist and wife to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — would be 90 years old today. On April 27, 1927, Coretta was born at the center of segregation in Heiberger, Alabama. She attended a one-room schoolhouse before graduating from Lincoln Normal School in Marion, Alabama.

In 1951, Coretta graduated from Antioch College in Ohio where she studied music education. She excelled as a singer and earned a scholarship to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for further training. As an African American, she could not attend Alabama’s public universities, but the state of Alabama awarded her a grant that allowed her to complete her graduate degree at New England Conservatory.

Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. met in 1952 while Mr. King was pursuing his doctorate at Boston University. After dating a short time and overcoming opposition from Mr. King’s parents, Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. married on June 18, 1952.

The couple returned to Boston to complete their degrees before moving to Montgomery, Alabama, where Mr. King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. While serving as pastor, he also became the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and faced much opposition as an African American during that time.

The Move to Atlanta

In 1960, Mr. King resigned from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The King family moved to Atlanta where Mr. King co-pastored Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.

Mrs. King stood by her husband’s side from 1960 to 1965. She was seen at his court appearance in Albany in 1962, and again in Birmingham, Alabama, at a 1963 campaign. In 1963, she marched beside Mr. King in Washington, D.C. — where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech — and again in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

Coretta not only showed outward support for her husband’s cause, she also contributed to the civil rights movement with her musical talents.  In 1956, she raised money for the Montgomery Improvement Association with a fundraising concert in New York. This concert became the model for the following Freedom Concerts. In fact, Mrs. King performed these concerts the rest of her life.

Mrs. King faced much opposition and dissention during her life. Although much of her life was lived behind the scenes, there were a few times when she was forced to fight for her family. Whether it was because her husband was traveling or being wrongly imprisoned at the Georgia State Penitentiary, Mrs. King was no stranger to fighting for what was right.

Death of Her Husband

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Between her husband’s death and funeral, Mrs. King marched with striking sanitation workers — the same group with whom Mr. King had been campaigning prior to his murder. Because of her poise in this time, Mrs. King became an image of strength.

Continuing Mr. King’s Legacy

After his death, Coretta King worked hard to continue her husband’s work. She remained an activist for the remainder of her life, participating in activities like:

  • Taking over Mr. King’s leadership role in the Poor People’s Campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
  • Working with the National Organization for Women on the Equal Rights Amendment
  • Campaigning for affirmative action
  • Protesting in Boston in favor of school bus desegregation
  • Working with anti-apartheid groups in Washington D.C.
  • Attending the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994, as friend to both he and his wife

Often thought of as Coretta King's greatest achievement, Congress approved the observation of Martin Luther King Jr’s. birthday as a holiday in 1983.

Americans first observed the holiday in 1986, nearly 20 years after his death.

Mrs. King’s Death

After suffering a stroke in August 2005, Mrs. King died in a Mexican hospital on January 30, 2006. Unfortunately, it was disclosed after her death, that she had been suffering from ovarian cancer.

Coretta Scott King became the first woman and African American to lie in the state capitol rotunda thanks to arrangements made by former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue. Ebenezer Baptist Church hosted a viewing where tens of thousands of people came to pay respects. She was buried near her husband’s crypt, but in November 2006, the couple was put to rest together in a large crypt located in the middle of the King Center’s reflecting pool.

 

Image courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Chelsea Stephens

About the Author

Chelsea Stephens is the Marketing & Training Lead for Digital Services Georgia. A Georgia native herself, Chelsea enjoys writing on topics that citizens and visitors of Georgia can enjoy and learn from. 

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