The reason we have a Martin Luther King Jr. day to celebrate is due to the hard work that Coretta Scott King, Civil Rights Leader and widow of MLK, tirelessly put in to make it so. But beyond her legacy as the woman behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King forged her own path as a leader who spoke in favor of peace, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and economic issues.
Born in Marion, Alabama, young Coretta Scott King had great musical talent. She played trumpet and piano, sang in the chorus, and participated in school musicals. Her family believed strongly in education, and she graduated as the valedictorian from Lincoln Normal School in 1945. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement during college, was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority (Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama are also sisters of this sorority) and won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It was there that she was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. Despite her desire for a career in music, she married King in 1953 (she had the vow “to obey” removed from the ceremony).
King gave up her music career to support her husband, but it would be a mistake to think that she was a passive member of the movement. She brought the language of music to the organization and used her background as an artist to create a spiritual language through song that would provide an emotional connection to those listening.
Being a part of the movement also meant being in harm’s way, along with her young children. In 1956, their home was bombed. Author Octavia Vivian wrote in her 2006 biography Coretta: The Story of Coretta Scott King, “That night Coretta lost her fear of dying. She committed herself more deeply to the freedom struggle, as Martin had done four days previously when jailed for the first time in his life.”
Coretta saw herself as a leader and used her platform to highlight the accomplishments of other African-American women who had been huge parts of the movement but given little attention. She criticized the sexism and erasure of women’s work in the Civil Rights Movement in January 1966 in New Lady magazine, saying in part, “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” (Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement
edited by Emilye Crosby).
When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, she had to comfort her five children and take on the new role of being Dr. King’s widow and the protector of his legacy. Soon after his death, she took his place at a peace rally in New York City and slowly solidified herself as a leader without the need of a man beside her.
King broadened the movement to include women’s rights, LGBT rights, and dealing with economic issues and anti-war messages. Like Dr. King, Coretta Scott believed that three of the great evils of the world were “racism, poverty and war.” She was a huge part of the anti-Vietnam movement and, like her husband, was spied on by the FBI.
Her support of the LGBT community can be traced back to 1983 in Washington, D.C.. King urged the amendment of the Civil Rights Act to include gays and lesbians as a protected class. She denounced homophobia, reinforced the idea that gay people had always been apart of the Civil Rights movement, and in 1993 she urged President Clinton to stop the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. In response to President George W. Bush’s assertion that marriage was between a man and a woman, King responded.
“Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union,” she said. “A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing to protect traditional marriages.”
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice … But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ … I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice… But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ … I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”
The holiday we are celebrating today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is because of Coretta Scott King. She spent years pushing it to become a federal holiday. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, but some states resisted observing the holiday. It wasn’t officially observed in all 50 states until 2000. Initially, a lot of people tried to combine King’s holiday with other ones—like in Alabama where they wanted to celebrate Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Birthday on the same day … which is suspect. But not as suspect as Lee-Jackson-King Day.
Coretta Scott King died in 2006 at the age of 76. As we celebrate her husband, we should also celebrate her: the woman who continued the movement and broadened it to be more inclusive. She truly was was a trailblazer.
(image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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