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The “Other” First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement: Coretta Scott King

By Michael F. Bishop

On April 8th, 1968, a tall, striking woman wearing a black, lace mourning veil led thousands of people on a march in Memphis, Tennessee. She was accompanied by three of her four children.

Just four days before, her husband, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at about six in the evening. A few moments later, a petty criminal and escaped convict named James Earl Ray, standing in a boarding house bathroom a block away, aimed a rifle at King and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck King in the face, and he collapsed on the balcony, mortally wounded. His friends and companions rushed to his side, but it was clear that the world’s most prominent civil rights leader would not survive. Despite the best efforts of the doctors at the nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital, King died an hour later. He was 39.

King had inspired millions of Americans and others around the world to join the fight for racial justice. With rhetorical skill and remarkable courage, he led a movement of peaceful resistance to racial segregation. At his side were prominent figures such as the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Harry Belafonte, and Jesse Jackson. But his most important and treasured partner was his wife of fifteen years, Coretta Scott King.

Coretta Scott was born in rural Alabama on April 27, 1927, in modest but comfortable circumstances. She was descended from slaves and had a mixed racial heritage; some of her ancestors were Irish. Hardworking and studious, Scott had a fine singing voice and won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music. When she met King in 1952, he was immediately smitten, but she responded coolly to his advances. A career in music beckoned, and she was keen to preserve her independence. But his determined courtship paid off, and they were married the following year. It is notable, however, that she omitted the traditional vows of obedience to her husband from the wedding.

Her marriage was a whirlwind. The young preacher who won her heart became the leader of the civil rights movement, and he traveled constantly, risking his freedom and safety in campaigns of civil disobedience. When he was arrested in 1960, she received a telephone call from the Democratic nominee for president, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the details of which she shared with reporters. Kennedy’s intervention helped cement black support in a close and hard-fought campaign against Richard Nixon.

Mrs. King endured the trials of separation and tolerated her husband’s many infidelities. She often felt lonely and shouldered the responsibilities of parenthood largely alone. But to her it was worth it, and she later reflected, “I felt blessed to have been called to be a part of such a noble and historic cause.”

Her husband knew how important she was, and wrote of her in his autobiography, “My devoted wife has been a constant source of consolation to me through all the difficulties. In the midst of the most tragic experiences, she never became panicky or over-emotional. I have come to see the real meaning of that rather trite statement: a wife can either make or break a husband. My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle.”

Coretta later reflected, “People asked me how I was able to do this and raise four children at the same time. I can only reply that when God calls you to a great task, he provides you with the strength to accomplish what he has called you to do. Faith and prayer, family, and friends were always available when I needed them, and of course, Martin and I always were there for each other.”

After her husband’s violent and tragic death, Mrs. King devoted herself to preserving her husband’s legacy. She led the years-long effort to make his birthday a national holiday, and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to that effect in 1983. Later she became a prominent campaigner for gay rights and against apartheid in South Africa and remained in the public eye for the rest of her life. She later reflected, “I am…identified as a civil rights leader or a human rights activist. I would also like to be thought of as a complex, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of experiences, much like everyone else, yet unique in my own way, much like everyone else.”

Mrs. King died in 2006, aged 78, a few years after suffering a debilitating stroke. A vast throng, including four American presidents, attended her funeral. She was later laid to rest next to her husband at The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a living memorial to her husband’s memory that she had founded soon after his death. Although their marriage was tragically cut short after only a decade and a half, their partnership endured for more than half a century.

Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.

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