Authored by Elliot Clement
Coretta Scott King devoted “a lifetime to raising public consciousness around issues related to human rights and social justice,” and although many know her primarily through her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., she was a powerful force for change in her own right (Crawford 2007, 116). She earned numerous accolades and over sixty honorary doctorates, including one from Marymount Manhattan College, during her lifetime, but her story is still often overshadowed by her husband’s (Suggs 2006). Her own dedication to social justice arose when she was not allowed to student teach in the Ohio public schools, because despite the fact that the students were integrated, the faculty remained all white (Crawford 2007). It was this instance that spurred King into a life dedicated to social justice, both with and without her husband.
Despite her commitment to and continued involvement in the movement for racial justice, King was not allowed to march alongside her husband and other leaders during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and she was not allowed to join the discussions with President Kennedy that followed (Wermeil and Stein 2004). Even though she was not given the same spotlight as her husband, she still remained steadfast in her dedication to social justice.
Just days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic death, Coretta Scott King led a civil rights march in Memphis, which did not surprise those who knew her well (New York Times 1968). She felt compelled to go lead this march in her husband’s place, going against the wishes of some who did not want her to attend because of her new widowhood (Elliott 2018).
King carried this dedication to upholding her husband’s legacy and carrying on the fight for social justice through the rest of her life. She established the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and led a fifteen-year effort to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday, both of which Clayborne Carson said would not have existed without her (Suggs 2006). King was committed to carrying on her husband’s legacy, but she did not limit herself to just that. She continued to “see and confront new forms of prejudice” throughout her life, including protesting apartheid and advocating for gay rights (Wermeil and Stein 2004, 25). She travelled around the world “to speak against racial and economic injustice, promote the rights of the powerless and poor, and advocate for religious freedom, full employment, health care, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament, and AIDS awareness” (Suggs 2006, 3).
Coretta Scott King is perhaps best known by who she married, but she lived an incredible and impactful life of her own. Her life embodied Vincentian values, and she demonstrated an unwavering commitment to “efforts toward global harmony” (St. John’s University 2015). She remained steadfast on the path towards social justice in all forms, no matter what stood in her way.
Crawford, Vicki. 2007. “Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for Civil and Human Rights: An Enduring Legacy.” The Journal of African American History 92 (1): 106–1117. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20064157.
Elliott, Debbie. 2018. “After MLK’s Death, Coretta Scott King Went To Memphis To Finish His Work.” National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2018/04/08/597703360/after-mlks-death-coretta-scott-king-went-to-memphis-to-finish-his-work.
New York Times. 1968. “Rights Leader’s Undaunted Widow: Coretta Scott King.” April 9, 1968. https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/118169301?accountid=14068.
St. John’s University. 2015. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.
Suggs, Ernie. 2006. “Portrait of Dignity: Coretta Scott King / 1927-2006: ‘She’s at Peace Now’: [Three Edition].” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, February 1, 2006. https://search-proquest.com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/337258048?accountid=14068.
Wermiel, Stephen J. and Robert E. Stein. 2004. “Human Rights Hero: Coretta Scott King.” Human Rights 31(3): 25. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27880442.