Childhood & Early Life
Coretta Scott King was born on April 27, 1927, in Alabama. She was the third child of her parents, Obadiah King and Bernice McMurry King. She had two elder sisters, Edythe and Eunice, and a younger brother, Obadiah Leonard. The Kings owned a farm and were financially better placed than the other African–American families of the area. King’s father was one of the first black people to own a vehicle.
In order to support her family’s income, King started working on the farm from an early age. She attended the ‘Lincoln Normal School.’ The school was 14 kilometers from their home, but it was the closest school that allowed black children. King graduated in 1945. She was a talented singer, which made her the leading soprano of the school choir.
After graduation, King attended ‘Antioch College’ in Ohio. Although the college allowed non-white students, King was among the handful of black students to study there. Racial discrimination toward colored students urged her to become active in the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’ (NAACP). Later, she won a scholarship to the ‘New England Conservatory of Music’ in Boston.
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While studying in Boston, King met Martin Luther King Jr., through a mutual friend. They became close, as they both believed in equal rights and fought for it. King Jr.’s father reminded King that as the wife of a Baptist minister, she would not be able to pursue a career in music. Their love was unmoved, and ultimately, they got the consent of their parents. The couple married in June 1953, at King’s family home. King completed her graduation in voice and piano, before moving to Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband.
In 1954, King Jr. became the full-time pastor of the ‘Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.’ King gave up her dreams of becoming a classical singer and started teaching in Sunday schools. She was also a member of the church choir. When King Jr. initiated the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott,’ to protest against racial discrimination, King extended her wholehearted support. Even after receiving threatening phone calls, she was unshaken.
King took an active part in campaigning for civil rights legislation. She incorporated her musical abilities into her campaigns. In April 1958, King gave her first performance, at a concert in Birmingham. She changed the format of the show and told the story of the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’ through her songs. She organized “freedom concerts,” where she sang, read poetry, and gave lectures, to raise funds for the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’ (SCLC) that was founded by her husband.
King was known for providing rock-solid support to her husband, even in critical situations. In January 1956, there was a bombing and explosion at their residence, which was triggered by the whites who detested civil rights activists. King was fearless and refused to leave her husband, despite their parents’ requests. When, in 1958, King Jr. was stabbed by a protestor, King remained by his bed till he recovered completely.
King maintained personal contacts with President John F Kennedy. In 1960, King Jr. was jailed for four months. Kennedy, who was a presidential candidate at that time, called up King, and promised all help. In 1963, King Jr. was arrested again. Kennedy, who was the president at that time, offered assistance, and King was allowed to talk to her husband.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside a hotel in Memphis. The next day, King received his body and conducted the funeral proceedings. Four days after her husband’s death, King traveled to Memphis, to take part in a protest march in support of sanitation workers of the area, who were on strike. The march had been planned by King Jr. Although she was till mourning her husband’s death, King led the march as planned.
Shortly after the death of King Jr., King took over the leadership of the ‘Civil Rights Movement.’ On April 27, 1968, she spoke at an anti-war demonstration, where her husband was to speak. King gradually broadened her area of work, to include women’s rights, LGBT rights, and world peace. She voiced her opinions on the Vietnam War, too.
King founded the ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change’ and served as its president for a long time. This organization was intended to protect the legacy and ideas of her husband. King took efforts to gather documents and papers belonging to her husband, which were scattered in different locations.
King led a 15-year campaign geared toward the recognition of her husband’s contributions. Her efforts bore fruits, and in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill declaring her husband’s birthday as ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Day,’ a federal holiday. It is observed on the third Monday of January, every year.
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During the 1980s, King voiced her opposition against the apartheid in South Africa. She participated in protests against this racial discrimination. In 1986, King traveled to South Africa and met the major leaders, including Winnie Mandela. King was an activist for world peace. She was one of the founders of the ‘Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.’
King was a supporter of lesbian rights. She requested the amendment of the ‘Civil Rights Act,’ to include the lesbian and gay community. In April 1998, she urged the civil rights community to join the struggle against homophobia. In 2003, she invited the lesbian community to participate in the 40th anniversary celebrations of the ‘March on Washington.’ It was the first time that the LGBT community was invited to a major African–American event.
King had four children: Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. Her children followed in their parents’ footsteps and became noted civil rights activists. After being at the head of the ‘King Center’ for many years, King handed over the reins to her son, Dexter.
In August 2005, King suffered a stroke and a mild heart attack. Her condition improved for a while but deteriorated again. In January 2006, she made her last public appearance at a dinner honoring her husband’s memory. On January 30, 2006, King breathed her last at the ‘Oasis Hospital’ in Mexico. She was undergoing therapy for her stroke and an advanced-stage ovarian cancer. The funeral was held in Georgia and was attended by former US presidents George W Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.