Coretta Scott was born in Heiberger, Alabama and raised on her parent’s farm in Perry County, Alabama. She was no stranger to the injustices of the era, even from a very young age. She saw her father’s lumber mill burned down by white neighbors, and had to walk five miles a day to reach the one room Crossroad School in Marion though there was a closer more well funded all white school. However, Coretta was tenacious and sought to excel in everything she did. She was the valedictorian of her class and received a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio. It was here that she began to take an active interest in social justice and the civil rights movement. She joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP, and Antioch’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committee. After she graduated with her BA in music and education, she received a scholarship to study concert singing at the New England Conservatory in Boston. It was there she met Martin Luther King Jr.
After they were married in 1954, Martin received an opportunity to serve as Pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Coretta was initially reluctant to go back to the South because of the racial injustice and violence that she had faced there, but she agreed with Dr King that it was because of this injustice that they were being called back. The Kings stay in Montgomery, Alabama was not without incident, as Dr. King was stabbed, their home shot at and bombed, and there were times that their families urged them to leave, but they were steadfast in their beliefs.
Mrs. King took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement. She participated in many of her husband’s campaigns, as well as her own independent efforts towards racial justice and equality. She took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and journeyed to Ghana to mark the nation’s independence from British rule in 1957. She also traveled to India on pilgrimage to honor the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violence work had inspired the Kings efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights act.
She also created and performed in Freedom concerts, became the first woman to deliver the Class Day address at Harvard, and was the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. She also became a liaison to the International Peace and Justice organization before her husband had taken a public stand against the Vietnam War.
After her husband’s assassination in 1968, she continued to be a staunch advocate for the rights of minority groups. King established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and served as the Center’s President and CEO until 1996. She fought against corrupt governments, struggled to establish her husband’s birthday as a national holiday, stood up against apartheid, and was a major protestor against the Vietnam War and the missile attack on Iraq in 1993. She also believed that "Homophobia [was] like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it sought to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood" and spoke out in support of LGBT rights, actively denouncing DOMA, and speaking at various conferences and rallies for LGBT rights.
King also received several honors and tributes. She received honorary degrees from Princeton, Duke and Bates universities. The American Library Association created a medal in her name to honor outstanding African-American writers and illustrators of children’s literature. Women’s Way awarded her their first Lucretia Mott award in 1978 for her work in the advancement of women and justice. She continued to receive honors even after her death. She had a forest named in her honor in the Galilee region by the Jewish National Fund, was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize by the government of India, had a school opened in her name to promote young women’s leadership, and had Super Bowl XL dedicated in her honor along with Rosa Parks. Lastly, she had two Congressional resolutions introduced upon her death in the Senate and the House of the United States.
Coretta Scott King was a powerhouse advocate for the rights of others. While her husband is the most famous figure of the era, she is truly the first lady of the Civil Rights Movement in her own right.