by BOTWC Staff - Because Of Them We Can
Coretta Scott King was an activist, author, mother, and wife of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Born April 27, 1927 near Marion, Alabama, she was the daughter of farm owners Obadiah “Obie” Scott and Bernice McMurray Scott who emphasized education at a young age, the King Institute at Stanford University reports. King attended a private school as a young girl where she developed a passion for music. After graduation, she enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she was awarded a partial scholarship. While there, she became a member of the NAACP, crediting the school with preparing her for the Civil Rights Movement.
She went on to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where she met Dr. King, who was a doctoral student at Boston University’s School of Theology at the time. The two began dating, eventually marrying before returning to school and finishing their degrees. While she didn’t realize she was marrying a man that would one day become one of the most influential leaders of all time, she rose to the occasion at every twist and turn against unbelievable odds.
While Dr. King only lived to see 39 years old, it was Mrs. King who made sure his life’s work would echo for generations to come. It was she who served as an anchor for Dr. King in both life and death, becoming a resounding symbol of what King called “love, sacrifice, and loyalty.” In remembrance of Mrs. Coretta Scott King, here are 4 things that wouldn’t exist without her leadership:
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
For 15 years, Coretta Scott King spearheaded efforts to get a holiday passed in remembrance of her late husband, Because Of Them We Can previously reported. Former Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced the bill just four days after King’s assassination, and Mrs. King partnered with Conyers and the Congressional Black Caucus to galvanize efforts to make the holiday official. Conyers introduced the bill every year, taking more than a decade before the bill received enough congressional support to be voted on. 15 years after his assassination, it would finally be signed into law.
Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song
During the fight to make King Day an official holiday, Coretta Scott King used all avenues to promote public support for her husband. This included the support of artists and musicians like Stevie Wonder, who decided to create a special song in support of King Day and MLK’s birthday that can serve as both a celebration and anthem. What came from that was Wonder’s iconic “Happy Birthday” song, released on his 1980 Hotter Than July album. Wonder joined Coretta Scott King at various rallies and completed his four-month tour with a special benefit concert on the National Mall where King previously gave his “I Have A Dream” speech 18 years earlier.
“You know it doesn't make much sense /There ought to be a law against /Anyone who takes offense /At a day in your celebration 'cause we all know in our minds/ That there ought to be a time/ That we can set aside / To show just how much we love you /And I'm sure you would agree/ What could fit more perfectly/ Than to have a world party on the day you came to be/ Happy birthday to you,” Wonder sang.
Poor People’s Campaign
Marion Wright, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Jackson, Mississippi was responsible for initially suggesting the Poor People’s Campaign to King, the King Institute reports. He officially announced the endeavor at a staff retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in November 1967. His goal was to create grounds for real justice that didn’t include small concessions sparked by tense riots but something more sustainable.
King’s campaign called for an initial group of 2,000 people from both southern and northern states to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with government officials. They demanded jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and quality education for poor adults and children. King thought the ask was simple and knew that despite desegregation and the right to vote, true equality would never be achieved unless people were granted economic security. Less than six months after announcing the campaign, King was assassinated in April 1968.
On Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, Coretta Scott King led thousands of women to Washington, D.C. to become the first wave of demonstrators. Ethel Kennedy, wife of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, joined King on that first Mother’s Day opening as the protestors, led by King and under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy built Resurrection City, a temporary village of tents and shacks on the National Mall. Protestors would gather daily to protest for economic justice outside of various federal agencies. Halfway through the campaign, Senator Kennedy was assassinated.
His funeral procession would ride through Resurrection City and on June 24, 1968, government officials forced the protestors out, citing permit issues. While the campaign didn’t succeed in the way organizers initially intended, they did take home some small victories, such as 200 counties qualifying for free surplus food distribution and organizers working with federal agencies to secure promises of hiring poor people to run programs for the poor.
Martin Luther King Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change
According to the King Institute, after the assassination of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King began immediately establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, known today as the King Center. Located in Atlanta, Georgia next to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, it is the final resting place for Mr. & Mrs. King and was created as a living memorial in honor of Dr. King’s life for historical and educational purposes. The goal of the Center is to spread Dr. King’s “philosophies on nonviolence and service to mankind, [build] international partners to further the “Beloved Community” and [oversee] various programs that use King’s name.
The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Kings’ daughter, Bernice King, called her mother “the architect of the King legacy,” and no truer words have ever been spoken.
While Dr. King was indeed a remarkable man and a champion for justice, at the time of his death he was considered one of the most hated men in America. It was Mrs. King, despite her grief and the responsibility of carrying on without her husband to raise their four children, sojourned on to ensure that his legacy would be preserved, and his sacrifice would not be in vain. Without the determination and dedication of Mrs. King and all the civil rights leaders who rallied around her, we may not have the memory of Dr. King as he is known today. His story could’ve been lost, his work erased, and his legacy distorted.
We pay homage to the work of Mrs. Coretta Scott King. Because of her, we can.
Remembering Coretta Scott King: 4 things that wouldn’t exist without her leadership. Photos Courtesy of @BerniceAKing/Instagram, @usowomen/Instagram and @myskincolorisnotacrime/Instagram.