Coretta Scott King’s Contributions to American Liberty
A pioneer of the American civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King, died at the age of 78 on Jan. 30. As wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she was not a quiet woman who fit the 1950s ideal of a dedicated and subservient housewife.
She, too, walked boldly in several protest marches, traveled abroad as a representative of many humanitarian organizations, and gave speeches as a means of motivating others to join the civil rights movement. For instance, Mrs. King walked by the side of her husband in marches such as those against racial segregation in schools, the June 1963 ‘Freedom Walk’ on Detroit and the infamous march on Washington where Dr. King delivered his acclaimed ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Mrs. King’s active participation in the civil rights movement further extends to her positions as delegate and leader in organizations as the National Council of Negro Women and the Women’s Strike for Peace.
Her dedication to the civil rights movement did not begin upon her marriage King but it was rather the result of her own personal experiences growing up in a society whose laws and government were fundamentally racist, elitist, gendered and overall unequal.
Born on April 27, 1927 in Heiberger, Ala. she was raised on a farm by her parents, Bernice and Obadiah Scott. As a young girl, she was subject to the harsh injustices of segregation as every day she walked five miles to attend a one-room school in Marion, Ala. while white students her age rode buses to an all-white school nearby. Upon attending Lincoln High school, nine miles away, Coretta continued to walk to school until her mother contracted a bus and drove all of the African-American students in the neighborhood to and from school—a rare act for an African-American woman during the early 1900s.
Even under such societal injustices, Coretta excelled in school and graduated in 1945 as the valedictorian of her class. In the same year, she received a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio, where her sister was the first full-time African-American to reside on campus. Coretta joined the local chapter of the NAACP as well as the Antioch associations of Race Relations and Civil Liberties. Majoring in music and education, she graduated college in 1951 with a B.A. degree in both fields.
As segregation laws prevented her from becoming a school teacher, she resolved to become a professional singer and accepted a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of music in Boston. However, this scholarship paid only for her tuition; in order to pay for her housing and breakfast, Coretta cleaned the stairwells of her college home and ate a luxurious feast of peanut butter with crackers for dinner—the greatest form of dining her budget afforded. As a student in the conservatory, Coretta met Martin Luther King Jr., a fellow undergraduate and theology major. The two married in 1953 and upon Mrs. King’s graduation the following year, they moved to Montgomery, Ala. where Martin Luther King Jr. began working as a minister. Their 15 years of marriage were comprised of raising four children, traveling the nation, proclaiming and advocating civil rights and ultimately becoming prominent leaders in the movement toward racial equality in America—an amazing feat to accomplish.
Though Dr. King died on April 4, 1968, Mrs. King never ceased to be involved with the civil rights movement for changing both social and economic injustice within America. With this, she founded the Full Employment Action Council in 1974 which was comprised of over 100 labor, religious, civil and women’s rights organizations and whose goal was to bring about national policy for full employment and equal economic opportunity.
In memory of Dr. King she built the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Opened in 1981, it is the first institution built in remembrance of an African-American leader and holds the largest selection of documents from the civil rights time period.
Furthermore, Mrs. King’s achievements include successfully making Jan. 15 a national holiday (in observance of Dr. King’s birthday), being the first woman to deliver the Class Day address at Harvard University, being the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and standing alongside Nelson Mandela as he accepted his presidency of South Africa. A pioneer for women, a civil rights activist and humanitarian, Coretta Scott King was truly a living legend.
Juontel White is a first-year literary journalism major.