Coretta Scott King (1927-)

The founding president of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, Coretta Scott King emerged as an African-American leader of national stature after the death in 1968 of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born on April 27, 1927, in Marion, Alabama, Coretta Scott spent her childhood on a farm owned by her parents, Obie Leonard Scott and Bernice McMurry Scott. By the early 1940s, her father's truck-farming business had become increasingly successful, prompting harassment from white neighbors. The family suspected that resentful whites may have been responsible for a 1942 fire that destroyed the Scott family's home. Hoping for better opportunities for their offspring, Obie and Bernice Scott encouraged their three children to excel in school. Coretta Scott graduated from Lincoln High School, a private Black institution with an integrated faculty, and then followed her older sister Edyth to Antioch College in Ohio, where she received a B.A. in music and elementary education. An accomplished musician and singer, Scott held her concert debut in 1948 in Springfield, Ohio, performing as a soloist with the Second Baptist Church.

Enrolling in 1951 at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music with a grant from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, Scott developed her singing talent and eventually earned a Mus.B. in voice. While there, she also began dating Martin Luther King, Jr., a doctoral candidate at Boston University's School of Theology. Despite the initial objections of King's parents, who wanted him to marry a woman from his hometown of Atlanta, the two were married at the Scott family home near Marion on June 18, 195 3.

During the period of her husband's public career, Coretta King usually remained out of the public spotlight, raising the couple's four children: Yolanda Denise (born November 17,1955), Martin Luther III (October 23, 1957), Dexter Scott January 30, 1961), and Bernice Albertine (March 28, 1963). While her primary focus was on raising children, in 1962 she served as a voice instructor in the music department of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Coretta King also worked closely with her husband and was present at many of the major civil rights events of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, she accompanied her husband on a trip to Europe and to Ghana to mark that country's independence. In 1959, the Kings traveled to India, where Coretta King sang spirituals at events where her husband spoke. In 1960, after the family moved from Montgomery to Atlanta, she helped gain her husband's release from a Georgia prison by appealing to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy for his assistance. Kennedy's willingness to intervene to help the jailed civil rights leader contributed to the crucial support he received from African-American voters in the 1960 election. In 1962, Coretta King expressed her long-standing interest in disarmament efforts by serving as a Women's Strike for Peace delegate to the seventeen-nation Disarmament Conference held in Geneva, Switzerland. She also attended the 1964 ceremony in Oslo, Norway, awarding Dr. King the Nobel Peace Prize. In the mid-1960s, Coretta King’s involvement in the civil rights movement increased as she participated in "freedom concerts," which consisted of poetry recitation, singing, and lectures demonstrating the history of the civil rights movement. The proceeds from the concerts were donated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In February 1965, while Martin Luther King was jailed during voting rights protests in Alabama, she met with Black nationalist leader Malcolm X shortly before his assassination. Prior to 1968, Coretta King also maintained speaking commitments that her husband could not fill.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Coretta King devoted her life to actively propagating her husband's philosophy of nonviolence. Just a few days after the assassination she led a march on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, substituting for her husband, and, later in the month, she kept his speaking engagement at an anti-Vietnam war rally in New York. In May she also helped launch the March on Washington of the Poor People's Campaign, and thereafter participated in numerous antipoverty efforts. In addition, during 1969, she published her autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1969, Coretta King began mobilizing support for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Her plans included an exhibition hall, a restoration of the King childhood home, an Institute for Afro-American Studies, a library containing King's papers, and a museum. As founding president of the center, she guided the construction of its permanent home, located on Auburn Avenue next to Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King had served as copastor with his father.

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