Coretta Scott King emerged as an African American national leader following the assassination of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which includes memorials to her husband’s work but also acts as a center for studies by scholars and students committed to social change. She was a member of and leader in international peace groups and African American organizations in the United States, where she was consulted by American politicians and by civil rights activists. King received more than one hundred honorary degrees for her work toward establishing social justice in the United States and other countries.
Coretta Scott King was born to Obie and Bernice Scott, who encouraged their three children to excel; her younger brother became a Methodist minister, and her sister was the first full-time African American student to live on the campus of Antioch College in Ohio. King’s secondary education was at the private Lincoln School in Alabama, where she specialized in piano and voice training and graduated first in her class. She received a scholarship to study at Antioch College and majored in both music and education; later she chose to emphasize music rather than education as a career. She was accepted by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston with a fellowship and began giving voice recitals.
Coretta Scott met Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boston, where King was completing graduate work in philosophy at Boston University. They realized their life goals were similar, especially in their commitments toward social change for African Americans and other disfranchised groups. In her autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., King emphasizes their shared purpose and agreement on nonviolent ways to bring about social change. On June 18, 1953, they were married in a ceremony presided over by King’s father. After Coretta Scott King had completed her conservatory training and Martin Luther King, Jr., his Ph.D. degree, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he assumed leadership of the Drexel Avenue Baptist Church. Four children were born to them, and Coretta Scott King devoted herself to the family as well as to civil rights crusades for which her husband had become the national leader. While wholly supportive of his efforts, she accepted major responsibilities for making speeches, participating in mass actions, and continuing her music career.
In 1959 King toured Europe and Asia with her husband, singing concerts in Asia; in 1964 she was present in Oslo, Norway, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. In the 1960’s she taught voice in the music department of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, was a delegate to the Women’s Strike for Peace in Geneva, Switzerland, and performed a series of “freedom concerts” throughout the United States, in which she not only sang but also illustrated the history of the civil rights movement through poetry. She also continued to speak in place of her husband at rallies and benefits when he had conflicting engagements.
After her husband’s assassination, King announced plans for the construction of a memorial to him. This project eventually included his refurbished birthplace, his grave site, and a park, as well as a newly built museum, a library, and facilities for African American studies and for the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change for which Coretta Scott King was the founding president. She also led the effort to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom, and she helped organize the movement to establish a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1980’s King led the international movement against the apartheid system in South Africa.
Coretta Scott King was the first woman to give major speeches at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and at Harvard University’s Class Day exercises. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations. With other family members, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded as a tribute to her late husband. In the 1990’s she continued to travel internationally to support causes and movements for social justice. She was the active chief executive of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, the co-chairperson of the Full Employment Council, and a leading member of the Black Leadership Forum and Black Leadership Roundtable. She also served as a sponsor for the Sane Nuclear Policy Committee, the Committee on Responsibility, and the Margaret Sanger Memorial Foundation. In her leadership role nationally and internationally she continued and expanded social causes to which she and her husband had committed when they first married, remaining faithful to the spirit of their joint goals. King died on January 31, 2006 at the age of 78.