Although best known as the wife of 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) established a distinguished career in activism in her own right.

Working side-by-side with her husband throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and worked to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr., was published in 1969.

Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, she continued their work, founding the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. She served as the center’s president and chief executive officer from its inception.

In 1980, a 23-acre site around King’s birthplace was designated for use by the King Center. The following year, a museum complex was dedicated on the site.

King also was behind the 15-year fight to have her husband’s birthday instituted as a national holiday—President Ronald Reagan finally signed the bill in 1983.

In 1995, King passed the reins of the King Center over to her son, Dexter, but she remained in the public eye. She wrote regular articles on social issues and published a syndicated column. She had been a regular commentator on CNN since 1980. In 1997, she called for a retrial for her husband’s alleged assassin, James Earl Ray. Ray died in prison before the trial could begin.

Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. had four children: Martin Luther King III, who served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Yolanda, an actress; Bernice, a lawyer and Baptist minister; and Dexter; who runs the King Library and Archive. King suffered a heart attack and stroke in August 2005; she died on January 30, 2006.

Biography courtesy of

HISTORY Vault: Voices of Civil Rights

A look at one of the defining social movements in U.S. history, told through the personal stories of men, women and children who lived through it.