Coretta Scott King

Singer who married Martin Luther King and became a matriarch of the US civil rights movement


Coretta Scott, civil rights activist: born Heiberger, Alabama 27 April 1927; married 1953 Martin Luther King (died 1968; two sons, two daughters); died Rosarito Beach, Mexico 31 January 2006.

Back in 1951, Coretta Scott was an exceptionally promising young concert singer who had broken through most of the barriers that a white- dominated society had set in the way of black Americans. She had been awarded a place at the venerable New England Conservatory of Music in Boston - 1,200 miles on the map and an entire universe in terms of culture removed from the rural Alabama where she had been born a quarter of a century earlier - and a glittering career as a concert singer seemed to lie ahead.

But then, two years later, in that same distant Yankee city, she met a theology student named Martin Luther King. In 1953 she married him, and her life was changed forever. King would quickly become the leader of the American negro's struggle for racial acceptance and equality, and a man who became little short of a saint in his own lifetime. In this age, in terms of global prestige, only Nelson Mandela comes close. Coretta Scott King found herself at the epicentre of history.

A year after their marriage, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama. On 1 December 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white passenger. She was arrested. In retaliation, Martin Luther King organised a boycott that first focused the world's attention on the segregated South and the growing US civil rights movement. Coretta was at his side, in demonstrations across Jim Crow America, as he pressed his doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience.

The price for the Kings was high. In 1956 their Montgomery home was bombed by white extremists - and only narrowly did their first child Yolanda escape serious injury. By then, Coretta had put any personal musical ambitions behind her. Instead she was a prime mover behind the celebrated "Freedom Concerts" of that era, in which poetry, music and narrative were fused, to present the story of the civil rights movement and raise funds for her husband's new movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Her own international profile grew as well. One year she delivered the class day address at Harvard University, just across the Charles River from Boston where she had met her husband; another year, she preached at a service at St Paul's Cathedral. In 1964 she accompanied Martin Luther King to Oslo, for his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In April 1968, in circumstances still mysterious, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by a white gunman named James Earl Ray. During his life - and whatever his subsequently documented infidelities - Coretta had been a pillar of support, serving as counsellor, occasional speechwriter, and representative of her husband, as well as mother to the couple's four children. After his murder, she became a veritable matriarch of the civil rights movement.

Her beginnings were typical of the time. Coretta Scott's parents were "truck farmers", who sold the small surplus produce from their holding to make a living. In fact the Scott family was better off financially than most blacks in the area. But life for Coretta and her two siblings was anything but easy in those rigidly segregated times. Each day, she had to walk five miles to a one-room elementary school, while white students took buses to an all-white school closer to her home. But she persevered and succeeded; first as a student and musician, then as a civil rights campaigner, and ultimately as the widow of an American myth.

In 1969, she published the first volume of an autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. Five years later she organised the Full Employment Action Council, with the goal of promoting jobs for blacks. Her greatest energies however were devoted to creating the Martin Luther King Center, a memorial and seat of learning to promote her husband's work, based in his home town of Atlanta, Georgia.

The centre opened in 1981, part of a designated national historic site that includes an unrivalled archive of documents from the civil rights era. For 14 years Coretta was its president before turning over its leadership to her son Dexter. In 1986, she achieved another goal, when the US Congress voted that each year Martin Luther King's birthday, 15 January, should be commemorated as an official national holiday. It was a tribute to a great American - but in a smaller way to his widow too, who had laboured so hard to make his name immortal.

Rupert Cornwell

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