Knowledge Session: Who Was Coretta Scott King?

Cor­etta Scott King was one of the most influ­en­tial women lead­ers in our world. Pre­pared by her fam­ily, edu­ca­tion, and per­son­al­ity for a life com­mit­ted to social justice and peace, she entered the world stage in 1955 as wife of the Rev­er­end Dr. Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. and as a lead­ing par­ti­cipant in the Amer­ic­an Civil Rights Move­ment. Her remark­able part­ner­ship with Dr. King res­ul­ted not only in four chil­dren, who became ded­ic­ated to car­ry­ing for­ward their parent’s work, but also in a life devoted to the highest val­ues of human dig­nity in ser­vice to social change. Mrs. King traveled through­out the world speak­ing out on behalf of racial and eco­nom­ic justice, women’s and children’s rights, gay and les­bi­an dig­nity, reli­gious free­dom, the needs of the poor and home­less, full-employ­ment, health care, edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tun­it­ies, nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment and envir­on­ment­al justice. She lent her sup­port to pro-demo­cracy move­ments world-wide and con­sul­ted with many world lead­ers, includ­ing Corazon Aquino, Ken­neth Kaunda, and Nel­son Man­dela.

Born and raised in Mari­on, Alabama, Cor­etta Scott gradu­ated vale­dictori­an from Lin­coln High School. She received a B.A. in music and edu­ca­tion from Anti­och Col­lege in Yel­low Springs, Ohio, and then went on to study con­cert singing at Boston’s New Eng­land Con­ser­vat­ory of Music, where she earned a degree in voice and viol­in. While in Boston she met Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. who was then study­ing for his doc­tor­ate in sys­tem­at­ic theo­logy at Boston Uni­ver­sity. They were mar­ried on June 18, 1953, and in Septem­ber 1954 took up res­id­ence in Mont­gomery, Alabama, with Cor­etta Scott King assum­ing the many respons­ib­il­it­ies of pastor’s wife at Dex­ter Aven­ue Baptist Church.

Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther K

Dur­ing Dr. King’s career, Mrs. King devoted most of her time to rais­ing their four chil­dren: Yolan­da Den­ise (1955), Mar­tin Luth­er, III (1957), Dex­ter Scott (1961), and Ber­nice Alb­ertine (1963). From the earli­est days, how­ever, she bal­anced moth­er­ing and Move­ment work, speak­ing before church, civic, col­lege, fraternal and peace groups. She con­ceived and per­formed a series of favor­ably-reviewed Free­dom Con­certs which com­bined prose and poetry nar­ra­tion with music­al selec­tions and func­tioned as sig­ni­fic­ant fun­draisers for the South­ern Chris­ti­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, the dir­ect action organ­iz­a­tion of which Dr. King served as first pres­id­ent. In 1957, she and Dr. King jour­neyed to Ghana to mark that country’s inde­pend­ence. In 1958, they spent a belated hon­ey­moon in Mex­ico, where they observed first-hand the immense gulf between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King spent nearly a month in India on a pil­grim­age to dis­ciples and sites asso­ci­ated with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964, she accom­pan­ied him to Oslo, Nor­way, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even pri­or to her husband’s pub­lic stand against the Viet­nam War in 1967, Mrs. King func­tioned as liais­on to peace and justice organ­iz­a­tions, and as medi­at­or to pub­lic offi­cials on behalf of the unheard.

After her husband’s assas­sin­a­tion in 1968, Mrs. King foun­ded and devoted great energy and com­mit­ment to build­ing and devel­op­ing pro­grams for the Atlanta-based Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. Cen­ter for Non­vi­ol­ent Social Change as a liv­ing memori­al to her husband’s life and dream. Situ­ated in the Free­dom Hall com­plex encirc­ling Dr. King’s tomb, The King Cen­ter is today loc­ated inside of a 23-acre nation­al his­tor­ic park which includes his birth home, and which hosts over one mil­lion vis­it­ors a year.

As found­ing Pres­id­ent, Chair, and Chief Exec­ut­ive Officer, she ded­ic­ated her­self to provid­ing loc­al, nation­al and inter­na­tion­al pro­grams that have trained tens of thou­sands of people in Dr. King’s philo­sophy and meth­ods; she guided the cre­ation and hous­ing of the largest archives of doc­u­ments from the Civil Rights Move­ment; and, per­haps her greatest leg­acy after estab­lish­ing The King Cen­ter itself, Mrs. King spear­headed the massive edu­ca­tion­al and lob­by­ing cam­paign to estab­lish Dr. King’s birth­day as a nation­al hol­i­day. In 1983, an act of Con­gress insti­tuted the Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. Fed­er­al Hol­i­day Com­mis­sion, which she chaired for its dur­a­tion. And in Janu­ary 1986, Mrs. King over­saw the first leg­al hol­i­day in hon­or of her husband–a hol­i­day which has come to be cel­eb­rated by mil­lions of people world-wide and, in some form, in over 100 coun­tries.

Cor­etta Scott King tire­lessly car­ried the mes­sage of non­vi­ol­ence and the dream of the beloved com­munity to almost every corner of our nation and globe. She led good­will mis­sions to many coun­tries in Africa, Lat­in Amer­ica, Europe and Asia. She spoke at many of history’s most massive peace and justice ral­lies. She served as a Women’s Strike for Peace del­eg­ate to the sev­en­teen-nation Dis­arm­a­ment Con­fer­ence in Geneva, Switzer­land in 1962. She was the first woman to deliv­er the class day address at Har­vard, and the first woman to preach at a stat­utory ser­vice at St. Paul’s Cathed­ral in Lon­don.

A life-long advoc­ate of inter­ra­cial coali­tions, in 1974 Mrs. King formed a broad coali­tion of over 100 reli­gious, labor, busi­ness, civil and women’s rights organ­iz­a­tions ded­ic­ated to a nation­al policy of full employ­ment and equal eco­nom­ic oppor­tun­ity, as Co-Chair of both the Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Full Employ­ment and the Full Employ­ment Action Coun­cil. In 1983, she brought togeth­er more than 800 human rights organ­iz­a­tions to form the Coali­tion of Con­science, spon­sors of the 20th Anniversary March on Wash­ing­ton, until then the largest demon­stra­tion ever held in our nation’s cap­it­al. In 1987, she helped lead a nation­al Mobil­iz­a­tion Against Fear and Intim­id­a­tion in For­syth County, Geor­gia. In 1988, she re-con­vened the Coali­tion of Con­science for the 25th anniversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton. In pre­par­a­tion for the Reagan-Gorbachev talks, in 1988 she served as head of the U.S. del­eg­a­tion of Women for a Mean­ing­ful Sum­mit in Athens, Greece; and in 1990, as the USSR was rede­fin­ing itself, Mrs. King was co-con­vener of the Soviet-Amer­ic­an Women’s Sum­mit in Wash­ing­ton, DC.

In 1985 Mrs. King and three of her chil­dren, Yolan­da, Mar­tin III and Ber­nice were arres­ted at the South Afric­an embassy in Wash­ing­ton, DC, for protest­ing against apartheid.

One of the most influ­en­tial Afric­an-Amer­ic­an lead­ers of her time, Mrs. King received hon­or­ary doc­tor­ates from over 60 col­leges and uni­ver­sit­ies; authored three books and a nation­ally-syn­dic­ated news­pa­per column; and served on and helped found dozens of organ­iz­a­tions, includ­ing the Black Lead­er­ship For­um, the Nation­al Black Coali­tion for Voter Par­ti­cip­a­tion, and the Black Lead­er­ship Roundtable.

Dur­ing her life­time, Mrs. King dia­logued with heads of state, includ­ing prime min­is­ters and pres­id­ents, as well as par­ti­cip­at­ing in protests along­side rank and file work­ing people of all races. She met with many great spir­itu­al lead­ers, includ­ing Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and Bish­op Des­mond Tutu. She wit­nessed the his­tor­ic hand­shake between Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin and Chair­man Yassir Ara­fat at the sign­ing of the Middle East Peace Accords. She stood with Nel­son Man­dela in Johan­nes­burg when he became South Africa’s first demo­crat­ic­ally-elec­ted pres­id­ent. A woman of wis­dom, com­pas­sion and vis­ion, Cor­etta Scott King tried to make ours a bet­ter world and, in the pro­cess, made his­tory.

Mrs. King died in 2006. A few days after her death, thou­sands of Atlantans stood in line in the pour­ing sleet to pay their respects to her at a view­ing in Ebenez­er Baptist Church. She is today interred along­side her hus­band in a memori­al crypt in the reflect­ing pool of The King Center’s Free­dom Hall Com­plex, vis­ited by hun­dreds of thou­sands of people from all over the world year-round. The inscrip­tion on the crypt memori­al­iz­ing her life of ser­vice is from I Cor­inthi­ans 13:13 –“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”


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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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