When Martin Luther King Jr. was asked during a 1965 interview if he taught his wife, Coretta Scott King, about issues like world peace, he responded, “I think at many points she educated me.”
In fact, Coretta Scott King took an interest in activism well before she married the man who would become the nation’s foremost civil rights leader. Throughout her 13-year marriage to King and in the decades after his assassination, she worked for justice, standing against racism and war. She championed her husband’s legacy by campaigning to get a federal holiday in his honor and establishing the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change to continue his work.
“She said, ‘I knew I would be Black for the rest of my life, so I could not back down or remain silent in the face of injustice,” says Barbara Reynolds, who along with Scott King, authored the activist’s posthumous 2017 memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy.
Scott King Faced Racism in Childhood
Born in Heiberger, Alabama, on April 27, 1927, Scott King experienced racism from a young age. Her family’s land ownership made them a target for white racists who burned down their home and terrorized her father because he would not sell his lumber mill. As payback, they torched the business.
“The experiences with the burning down of her family home and the destruction of her father's business certainly had a profound effect on her ideas about what was right and what was just,” says Kristopher Burrell, an associate professor of history at Hostos Community College at the City University of New York and author of the 2020 paper “I Was Called, Too: The Life and Work of Coretta Scott King.”
Scott King attended segregated Lincoln Normal School, from which she graduated at the top of her class in 1945. From there, she headed to the integrated Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she studied music and elementary education, joined the NAACP and college committees focused on racial equality.
Political Allegiance in the Progressive Party
In the 1948 presidential election, Scott King supported a third-party candidate for president—the Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace. He opposed segregation and supported voting rights, equal pay, national health insurance, fair employment for women and a guaranteed minimum wage.
Her support of the Progressive Party was not a chapter in her life that she spoke much about, Reynolds says, explaining, “It was always said that it was linked to communism, and she didn't want Martin’s reputation to be stained by being linked to the Progressive Party.”
Scott King was not immune to racism at Antioch College, where administrators did not want to integrate their student teaching program. While Scott King’s white peers student-taught in the local Yellow Springs public schools, where the educators were all white, she had to student-teach in a district nine miles away.
A scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music drew Scott King to Boston, where she met King in 1952, and the couple wed the following year. After they moved to Montgomery, Alabama, so King could serve as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the pair became involved in the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, which challenged segregated seating and other forms of discrimination on the city’s bus lines. King was thrust in the spotlight by his leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association during the 1955 boycott, but Scott King contributed to the cause as well.
Undeterred Following MLK Home Bombing
In January 1956, segregationists bombed the King's home—while Scott King and their newborn daughter were in the house. They were physically unharmed, but family members urged Scott King to leave town. She made the courageous choice to remain in Montgomery.
“She said, ‘Well, you know I'm married to Martin, but I'm also married to the movement. I'm not leaving,’” Reynolds says.
Throughout the Montgomery boycott, Scott King and other women performed important tasks such as caring for children, managing correspondence, answering phones and filing documents. She helped King as he developed talks and sermons, offering suggestions on his speeches and strategy.
“Coretta Scott King was someone who Martin did consult, and even to a degree, rely upon for input and advice about strategic planning,” Burrell says. “She was someone who was an important thinker and strategist in her own right.”
She also used her vocal and music training to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King cofounded, by performing “Freedom Concerts” in which she discussed the importance of the civil rights movement. Reynolds said that meeting activist, actor and singer Paul Robeson previously influenced her to put on these concerts.
Fighting Injustice, While Facing Chauvinism
Scott King faced pressure, even from her husband, to focus on being a wife and mother and sideline her desire to be a civil rights leader. But she felt as called to fight social injustice as her husband. She took an early interest in peace activism as a student, when she met Bayard Rustin, who later became King’s advisor and influenced him to embrace nonviolence.
Scott King took part in the Women’s Strike for Peace in Geneva in 1962 and in other cities in subsequent years. She also supported the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, participating in an anti-Vietnam War rally before her husband had publicly spoken out against the conflict.
“She wanted to march with him because she always did,” Reynolds says. “He said, ‘No, no. No wives can march.’ And they had said that no woman could make a major speech. So, now there’s this great moment, and they said, ‘No, you can't go.’”
Activism Continues After MLK Assassination
King’s April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, did not deter his widow from activism. Before his death, King had been slated to lead a strike for sanitation workers in the city. Certain that he would have wanted the event to proceed, Scott King led the march.
Just days after King was killed, she also spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her husband had been pastor. About three weeks after the assassination, Scott King spoke at a New York City anti-Vietnam War protest.
And in May 1968, she participated in the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., that her husband had planned prior to his death. She led a delegation of women on Mother’s Day during the demonstration, which included a tent city and lasted for more than a month to raise awareness about poverty and joblessness across different communities.
In the days, months and years after King’s assassination, Scott King did not stop fighting for justice. Her activism led the FBI to surveil her just as it had her husband and other movement leaders.
“Even after Martin's assassination, that did not stop the surveillance of the King family,” Burrell says. “Because her activism didn't stop, because she became involved in more groups and more causes because of her work to stop nuclear proliferation, her efforts on behalf of women's rights, her advocacy of LGBT equality, she was considered a subversive figure in the eyes of the FBI.”
In 1968, she started the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she led until her 1995 retirement. In addition to peace, the Atlanta-based center champions causes such as equality and justice and serves as a King memorial. Scott King worked to get her husband’s papers housed at the King Center—no easy task because some of his writings were in academic institutions loath to part with them. Through the King Center, she also advocated for the national holiday in her husband’s honor, first observed on January 20, 1986.
“This was a long struggle to get the King holiday approved,” Burrell said. “It took a lot of political lobbying and maneuvering over a number of years, and I think it was eventually signed into law rather reluctantly. But the work that she and other political allies did to cement Dr. King's legacy was really important.”
During the 1980s, South African apartheid attracted global attention and Scott King participated in many protests against that system of racial segregation. She advocated for South Africa to face economic sanctions because of its apartheid regime. The King Center taught 300,000 South Africans nonviolence techniques ahead of the nation’s first political race with ethnically diverse candidates, and when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president, Scott King witnessed the historic event.
As she fought against apartheid, Scott King also called for protections for LGBTQ+ people. She spoke at functions organized by advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal.
“She actually preached a sermon talking about how gay rights were human rights, which was very courageous,” Reynolds says.
Consistently, she called for peace, opposing the Gulf War in the 1990s and the Iraq War in the aughts.
Having dedicated her life to the struggle for freedom, Coretta Scott King died in 2006 from complications of ovarian cancer at age 78. The next year, Antioch College opened the Coretta Scott King Center, which focuses on human rights and social justice.