By Matthew Ehret
While many people are quick to acknowledge the vital role in world history played by the great Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a too often overlooked figure is his fellow activist, partner and wife Coretta Scott King. Once King had fallen in the struggle against tyranny on April 4, 1968, Coretta was quick to pick up the torch becoming a leading force not only in the civil rights movement, but on the international stage organizing against nuclear weapons proliferation, womens’ rights and also becoming a leading force against Apartheid in South Africa.
Not only was she a leading activist, orator and strategist, but Coretta was also an accomplished singer and pianist who attributed her decision to dedicate her life to mankind not to her husband as many believe today, but rather to another world historic figure by the name of Paul Robeson. It was while singing in a concert at Antioch college in 1945 for an event sponsored by the NAACP that Coretta first met Paul Robeson, himself a leading figure of the process that was to later become the civil rights movement, that Coretta was encouraged by the great baritone to focus her studies on professional singing. This sparked her mission to become a singer activist like Robeson.
She became more active in the Civil rights movement after that meeting and obtained a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music where she specialized in voice and piano. It was also during this period that she met the man who would become her future husband and the couple were married on June 18, 1953. Indicative of her strong and independent character (and much to the chagrin of Martin’s pastor father who presided over the marriage), Coretta made an adjustment to the wedding vows by removing the slightly out-dated word “obey”.
After Martin was propelled to the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, Coretta’s musical career took the backseat. Becoming a mother made it additional difficult to pursue professional music, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a leading figure with her husband, at first orating the occasional speech to fill in for Martin, and then soon becoming a co-founder of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in 1957. In 1962, Coretta led a delegation called “Womens’ Strike for Peace” at the 17th disarmament conference in Geneva. In 1965 she began speaking regularly at rallies against the war in Vietnam. This was a full two years before Martin would come out against the unjust war!
Martin’s conservative upbringing once caused him to request that his wife spend more time with the children and less time engaged in activism. Coretta described her response in an interview:
“I once told Martin that although I loved being his wife and a mother, if that was all I did I would have gone crazy. I felt a calling on my life from an early age. I knew I had something to contribute to the world.”
During this process, Coretta was finally given the opportunity to express her full musical passion for the cause of humanity Coretta spearheaded a series of concerts from 1964-1965 featuring performances of African American Spirituals including We Shall Overcome and Go Down Moses. Coretta described this powerful initiative:
“I developed the ‘Freedom Concert’ concept where I narrated the story of the Civil Rights Movement that we were involved in, and sang freedom songs in between the narrations that told the story of our struggle from Montgomery to Washington at that time. In 1964, I did my debut with my Freedom Concert at Town Hall, raised money for the cause and the rest of the time I raised money for my husband’s organization doing Freedom Concerts and so forth.”
After 30 concerts she had raised over $50 000 for the cause.
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel before he could lead a march in defense of the sanitation workers. Rather than wallow in despair, Coretta courageously led the march of the 42 000 people in Memphis on April 8!
Coretta’s leadership re-focused and re-moralized the protesters with a speech calling on their perseverance and ended with the following electric words:
“the day that negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day, I will know my husband will rest in a long deserved peace.”
Speaking to a crowd at the Peace Rally in New York three weeks later she turned the focus of her speech towards the women calling for them to “unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war.”
On March 1, 1969 Coretta officially launched the “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” which was derailed with her husband’s murder. From the Balcony of the Lorraine Motel she announced the campaign and sang Sweet Little Jesus Boy to thousands.
By this point, Coretta had found herself the object of hostility from within the leading ranks of the SCLC. Although the SCLC lacked qualified leadership, the members couldn’t stand the idea of a woman President and instead chose the much weaker figure of Ralph Abernathy. Reverend Andrew Young, who later became US ambassador to the United Nations described the anti-Coretta situation:
“This caused incredible tension within the SCLC staff. Ralph [Abernathy] and the board wanted to use Coretta to raise money for the SCLC, but they didn’t want her to play any kind of policy role in the organization. The men in the SCLC were incapable of dealing with a strong woman like Coretta, who was insisting on being treated like an equal.”
Speaking to those who wished to use her as a mere symbol, Coretta said:
“I am not a ceremonial symbol. I am an activist. I didn’t just emerge after Martin died. I was always there and involved.”
Coretta soon split from the SCLC as the Poor Peoples Campaign fell apart under a combination of mis-leadership and external meddling from the FBI, leaving Coretta to form her own strategy for activism outside of the influence of Martin’s organization. In this regard, she devoted her energies towards stopping nuclear war, the creation of the King Center for Non Violent Change which opened in 1982 on a 23 acre national historical park, and succeeded in a 10 year endeavor to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday.
It is worth noting that Coretta represented such a danger in those post-SCLC years that the FBI kept a file on her until 1972 fearing that she “would tie the anti Vietnam movement to the civil rights movement”.
Throughout her later years, Coretta led marches against Apartheid (getting arrested with her daughter Yolanda outside the South African Embassy in 1984), befriended Nelson Mandela and led a successful legal campaign in 1999 alongside her children which resulted in a month long jury trial in a Tennessee court concluding that the murder of Martin Luther King was not conducted by James Earl Ray, but rather by a conspiracy organized from the highest levels of the U.S. Government. After the conclusion of the trial on December 7, 1999, Coretta gave a press conference saying:
“There is abundant evidence of a major high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief. I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury and I feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations. This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself. It is important to know that this was a SWIFT verdict, delivered after about an hour of jury deliberation.
The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame. I want to make it clear that my family has no interest in retribution. Instead, our sole concern has been that the full truth of the assassination has been revealed and adjudicated in a court of law… My husband once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” To-day, almost 32 years after my husband and the father of my four children was assassinated, I feel that the jury’s verdict clearly affirms this principle. With this faith, we can begin the 21st century and the new millennium with a new spirit of hope and healing.”