|Coretta Scott King Shared and Continued Dr. King's Dream
By: George E. Curry
Originally posted 1/31/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – On Monday, the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution voted to erect the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the national Mall in Washington, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Less than 24 hours after the vote, Coretta Scott King, the widow of the famous civil rights leader, closed her eyes for the final time and died in her sleep.
King died at Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito, Mexico, approximately 16 miles south of San Diego. The cause of death was listed on the death certificate as cerebral vascular disease and ovarian cancer. Mrs. King had apparently stopped breathing. She was 78, three months shy of her next birthday, and was said to be in Mexico to seek alternative forms of treatment for advanced cancer, which had not been previosuly disclosed.
The plane carrying King touched down at 5:13 a.m. Wednesday at Fulton County Airport-Bowen Field, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A second plane carrying the casket landed 25 minutes later. From the airport, the motorcade traveled on I-20 before exiting and continuing to Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home in southwest Atlanta, which is handling the funeral.
Coretta Scott King was more than Dr. King’s widow.
“Long before she met and married Martin Luther King Jr., she was an activist,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former chairman of the Atlanta-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), said in an interview on CNN.
In her autobiography, “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she spoke of her own humble background growing up in Marion, Ala.
“They made it illegal for blacks and whites to eat together in public; to sit together in theaters, buses or trains; to use the same comfort stations or water fountains; even to enter public buildings by the same door. It was as though the blacks had some contagious disease.”
She continued, “And yet, we worked in their houses, prepared their food, nurtured their children, and were intimately associated with them in every domestic way. The whole idea was to impress upon the black people that we were an inferior race; to reduce us, not to slavery again, but to being less than men.”
To re-enforce that message, she said: “African Americans, no matter what positions or how much education they had, were never called ‘mister’ or any other title. They were addressed as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ even if they were old and gray. They were supposed to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘Yes, ma’am’ – even to teenage whites. It was all deliberately aimed at instilling the slave mentality in our people.”
The Scott family tried to insulate Coretta from further indignities by sending her to Antioch College, a small, liberal institution in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and education. With an emphasis on voice, she enrolled in Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.
It was in Boston that she met a young Martin Luther King, who was studying for his doctorate in theology at Boston University.
In his first telephone call to his wife-to-be, Dr. King said: “A mutual friend of ours told me about you and gave me your telephone number. She said some wonderful things about you and I’d like very much to meet you and talk to you.”
Recalling the conversation in her autobiography, Coretta King wrote: “I began to remember then and I said, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve heard some very nice things about you also.’ That was all Martin needed to begin talking, very easily and very smoothly. I had never heard such talk in my life. He said, ‘You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo. I’m like Napoleon, I’m at my Waterloo, and I’m on my knees.’”
They agreed to meet for lunch the next day. At first, King put her off because he had another Napoleon quality – he was short.
“I was rather self-conscious but tried not to react too much, to remain as poised as I usually was,” she recounted. “It was a little difficult, for in those few minutes I had forgotten about Martin being short and had completely revised my first impression. He radiated charm. When he talked, he grew in stature. Even when he was so young, he drew people to him from the very first moment with his eloquence, his sincerity, and his moral stature. I knew immediately that he was very special.”
So special that the two married on June 18, 1953 in her hometown. But the wedding didn’t take place until after Coretta demanded – and got – the removal of the section of their wedding vows promising that she would obey her new husband.
Two years after the wedding, Dr. King would find himself leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.
On Jan. 30, 1956, Coretta King was home with their 1-year-old daughter, Yolanda, when a bomb was tossed into the house. Neither was hurt, but she experienced first-hand the dangers of challenging America’s version of apartheid.
“In an area where our founding fathers failed – founding fathers wrote slavery into the Constitution, we fought a civil war, but it wasn’t really until we had Dr. King and Coretta Scott King in the ‘50s that awakened the conscience of the nation so the political leadership of the early ‘60s could begin what I call the march to progress, that of knocking down walls of discrimination on race, religion, ethnicity and gender, and disability. And we have benefited so much from their leadership and from their inspiration,” Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Coretta Scott King marched with her husband in Birmingham, Ala. and other hot spots, but yearned for a larger role in the movement. However, according to King’s biographers, the civil rights leader held traditional unenlightened male views of that era, believing his wife should primarily take care of their children.
She actively supported the movement, her husband and took care of their kids at the same time.
“I’ve had the good opportunity to get to know the children over the years, and I have seen the time that they have spent with their mother,” Kennedy said in the interview. “The mother was not only a powerful and charismatic figure and leader for our time, but she helped those children grow up to be individuals with a sense of dignity, a sense of pride in their heritage, and their strong commitment to do something for someone else. I admire her for that, as well.”
Myrlie Evers Williams, whose husband, Medgar, was assassinated in Mississippi, understands the burden that Coretta King carried.
“I was saddened to learn about the passing of my personal, very special friend, Coretta Scott King,” she said in a statement. “She and I, along with Betty Shabazz, were members of a club that no one wants to join – the ‘widow of.’
“We shared the challenges of raising our children without their fathers; we shared the challenges of bearing our husbands’ legacies with dignity, we shared the challenges of the ever-shifting civil rights movement. And, through it all, she maintained her graciousness while impacting the world’s politics with her strength and sophisticated influence.”
In an interview with Playboy magazine, Dr. King noted that he traveled 325,000 miles a year, giving 450 speeches. Along with that grueling schedule came constant harassment by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered the bugging of King’s home, office and hotel rooms. The FBI sent tape recordings of what it said was King engaging in sex with women outside of his marriage. The bureau sent copies of the tapes to Dr. King’s home and office, but the move to discredit King never caused the couple to part.
Coretta Scott King has been in failing health since last August, when she suffered a stroke and a heart attack. She missed the annual King Day celebration this year for the first time but attended the Trumpet Awards, honoring outstanding African-Americans, a week later in Atlanta.
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP’s Board of Directors, noted: “Coretta Scott King was her husband’s partner in life; after his death, she was a fierce protector of his legacy and a promoter of nonviolence.”
Indeed after King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, she picked up the King mantle and emerged as an international leader in her own right. She completed his planned Poor People's March to Washington and met with such international figures as Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
President Bush, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who gave the Democratic response, both praised King.
Bush called her “a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream.” Kaine said, “I worked as a missionary when I was a young man and I learned to measure my life by the difference I can make in someone else’s life. Coretta Scott King embodied that value. And tonight, as a nation, we mourn her passing.”
Coretta Scott King's most lasting physical legacy remains the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, though he has been mired in recent years by allegations of mismanagement. The family has been bitterly split over whether to sell the center to the National Park Service or maintain it as an independent entity.
There is no division over the federal Martin Luther King holiday – the third Monday of every January – that came about in 1986 as a result of Coretta King’s tireless campaign. After Ronald Regan, who opposed the federal holiday, signed the bill into law, Coretta King spoke of her husband’s lasting contributions.
“All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition this nation gives is bestowed on Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. “He symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest, and what was best. His non-violent campaign brought about redemption, reconciliation and justice.”
She continued that legacy for 38 years after his death.
“I knew Coretta for more than 40 years,” Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., a former King aide who first notified her of King’s assassination, said in a statement. “To observe her handle the highs and lows of life with dignity was a lesson watching someone master fate with faith. She endured pain with unusual strength and character. She helped to carry the baton of that struggle for the rest of her life. She single-handedly built the King Center; more than that, her voice for justice at home and peace in the world remained a constant.”
Jackson continued, “Whether it was for Aristide to return to Haiti, or for the freedom of Mandela in South Africa, or to end the unjust and unnecessary wars, she sustained the legacy of hope and healing and nonviolence, as a tactic and a way of life for herself and her husband. Hers was a voice that will now reverberate throughout the ages.”
Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said: “Mrs. Coretta Scott King, the widow of our founding president, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a national and international treasure who was also still a faithful and dedicated servant as a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) since the mid-1970s. “…We shall take note and forever appreciate her regal elegance and special contributions she provided the civil rights movement.”
In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, former King aide and two-time Atlanta mayor Andrew Young said: “Her spirit will remain with us just as her husband’s has.”