Coretta Scott King (1927 – 2006) was a pioneer of the civil rights movement in the United States who worked side-by-side with her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, until his death. She continued their work after his assassination on April 4, 1968 and became one of the most influential civil rights leaders of the past 100 years.
King displayed musical talents early in life that furthered her later activism. In high school, she played the trumpet and piano, sang in the Chorus, and also participated in school musicals. She graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio with a B.A. in music and education and later won a scholarship to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and earned a degree in voice and violin.
As an undergraduate, Coretta Scott took an active interest in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. She joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP and became an active member of Antioch College’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties committees.
Prior to her husband’s death, King took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, which was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott lead to an eleven-month struggle to desegregate the city’s buses. On June 5 1956, the federal district court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional, and in November of 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the federal district court and struck down laws requiring segregated seating on public buses.
She also worked to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Civil Rights Act also ended racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and in facilities that serve the general public.
In 1965, King conceived and performed a series of “Freedom Concerts,” which provided her with an opportunity to combine these talents and passionate moral interests. The concerts focused on the Civil Rights Movement. She combined her singing and narration skills to inform people about the sit-ins, protests, boycotts, and marches that were helping end racial inequality. She later performed throughout the United States and in European cities. At times, renowned singers and activists such as Nina Simone, Tony Bennett, and Harry Belafonte shared the stage with her.
After her husband’s death, King took the helm of the civil rights movement. A few weeks after his death, she spoke at an anti-war rally in place of her husband. She made it clear that she was going to carry on their work as she denounced the immoralities of racism, poverty, and war. In the coming years she met with world leaders as she broadened her support for civil rights by also focusing on women’s rights. She also continued to be part of protests and rallies that at times included thousands of people.
She died less than 10 years ago and is interned alongside her husband in a memorial crypt that memorializes her life of service with an inscription from I Corinthians 13:13 -“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Recommended Reading and Reflection:
- My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King;
- Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King by Edythe Scott Bagley with Joe Hilley.