“I was always more than a label” Coretta Scott King

by Olivia Smith

“Behind every great man there’s a great woman”. What a bullshit quote. In a supportive relationship a man and woman can complement each other really well, but a woman isn’t great just because a man is. No more should we be seeing women in history as the feature of a notable man. 

Coretta Scott King – you may be thinking ‘who is she’? Well, if I said she was Martin Luther King’s wife you would know who she is by association, then by name. Coretta even perceived herself in this way: “I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner: the wife of Martin, then the widow of Martin, all of which I was proud to be. But I was never just a wife, nor a widow. I was always more than a label”.

Today, we are going to prove that. 

Born in 1927, Coretta’s early decades of life were shaped by singing and playing the violin, but she was exposed at an early age to the injustices of life in a segregated society. She walked five miles a day to attend the one-room Crossroad School in Marion, Alabama, while the white students rode buses to an all-white school closer by.  

Coretta Scott King with Martin Luther King and daughter Yolanda in 1956

As an undergraduate, Coretta took an active interest in the nascent Civil Rights Movement; she joined the Antioch chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the college’s Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees. Coretta was awarded a fellowship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and it was here that she met Martin Luther King. A year later they were married. 

What is incredible about these two is that they campaigned together. Coretta was as involved as Martin. She took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955; journeyed to Ghana to mark that nation’s independence in 1957; travelled to India on a pilgrimage in 1959; worked to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act; served as a Women’s Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962; and became a liaison to international peace and justice organizations even before Martin took a public stand in 1967 against US intervention in the Vietnam War.

When Martin was tragically assassinated in 1968, Coretta didn’t let this stop the cause they were fighting for and, four days later, she led a march through Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A new chapter opened up and – my god – was it a busy and phenomenal chapter of Coretta’s life. 

To name a few: 

  • She became the first woman to deliver the Class Day address at Harvard, and the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
  • She became the first woman to deliver the Class Day address at Harvard, and the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
  • In 1974, she formed the Full Employment Action Council, a broad coalition of over 100 religious, labour, business, civil, and women’s rights organizations dedicated to a national policy of full employment and equal economic opportunity. Mrs King served as Co-Chair of the Council.
Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City in 1976
  • In 1983, she marked the 20th anniversary of the historic March on Washington by leading a gathering of more than 800 human rights organizations, the Coalition of Conscience, in the largest demonstration the capital city had seen up to that time.
  • She also saw the 15-year fight for formal recognition of her husband’s birthday come to fruition in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that established Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday.
  • In 1985, Mrs King and three of her children were arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC for protesting against that country’s apartheid system of racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Ten years later, she stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he was sworn in as President of South Africa.
  • In 1987, she helped lead a national Mobilization Against Fear and Intimidation in Forsyth County, Georgia. 
  • In preparation for the Reagan-Gorbachev talks, in 1988 she served as head of the US delegation of Women for a Meaningful Summit in Athens, Greece; and in 1990, as the USSR was redefining itself, Mrs King was co-convener of the Soviet-American Women’s Summit in Washington, DC.
  • Mrs. King was invited by President Clinton to witness the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords in 1993.
President Bill Clinton joins hands with Coretta Scott King and Dexter King during a Martin Luther King, Commemorative Service in 1996
  • In the late 1990s, she became an advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage. Coretta connected the expansion of gay rights to the struggle for racial justice, quoting her late husband: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

To Coretta, the civils rights movement meant addressing the economic, racial, and gender inequalities at the heart of American society.  A woman of wisdom, compassion and vision, Coretta Scott King tried to make ours a better world and, in the process, made history.

About the Author:

Olivia is a public historian with an extensive historical research background in academic, television and guiding industries. 

Having once been described as a ‘history nut’, Olivia’s passion for history drove her to excel in both Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees at the University of Essex. 

Her drive for public history stems from her experience as a Commonwealth War Graves Commission intern during the final months of the First World War centenary. Since then, Olivia has worked with Women of London, guiding and researching historical tours focussing on all aspects of female history and is currently working as a historical advisor in the television industry. Olivia is striving towards her careers goal of “the positive promotion of historical education for everyone” 

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