What Every Woman Should Know is a bi-weekly series on American Women’s History.
“There are a lot of people who would love to relegate me to a symbolic figure and that’s it. I have never been just a symbol of anything. I am a thinker. I have strong beliefs, and I try to be an example of what I believe in.”
— Coretta Scott King, 1993
Coretta Scott King’s place in history may be forever shadowed by her great husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life’s work we celebrate today. But her life’s work is every bit as important, and in some surprising ways made his work possible. Today, as we recognize the impact Dr. King’s work has had on our country, it is also worth looking at her life to see her contribution, both to his work as he lived and to his legacy after he died, as well as to her work for social justice. Not many people are aware that Coretta Scott King was also a visionary when it came to Civil Rights, and unsuccessfully fought to expand the movement to include women’s and gay/lesbian rights. A little known fact is that she also tried to tap Josephine Baker to head this expanded movement. Perhaps, considering her long list of accomplishments, we should petition Congress to make the third Monday in January Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Day.
Coretta Scott King was already heavily involved in the budding Civil Rights movement when she met Dr. King. They are both on record as saying they fell for each other precisely because their values were so in sync with one another. She had already long been a member of the NAACP, and was subjected to an eye-opening experience with racism at Antioch College, where she pursued her B.A. in music education. One of the few African-American students on campus, Scott was denied the opportunity to student teach at the town’s integrated school. Integrated according to students, that is; all the teachers were white. She met King after she moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, where she pursued a Master’s Degree in Concert Singing. He attended Boston University, as a Ph.D. candidate in Theology. Martin Luther King had this to say about her in 1967:
I think at many points she educated me. When I met her, she was very concerned about all of the things that we are trying to do now. I never will forget that the first discussion that we had when we met was the whole question of racial injustice and economic injustice and the question of peace. And in her college days, she had been actively engaged in movements dealing with these problems. So that I must admit, I wish I could say, and satisfy my masculine ego, that I led her down this path. But I must say we went down together.
After they married and returned to the south, Scott King assisted Dr. King from the earliest days of his Civil Rights involvement, marching next to him, leading marchers in song, and coordinating supplies and events. In 1964 she proved a skeptical King wrong when she played a concert in New York to fundraise for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and raised $6,000. She had had success nearly a decade before with a 1956 fundraiser for the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group that came out of the boycott and sought to continue the advance for equal rights. More than a recital, that show featured a segment conceived by Scott King called “Portrait of the Montgomery Bus Protest,” that told the story of the boycott via spoken word interspersed with old spirituals and folk songs. Over her life, she performed more than 30 fundraising concerts. By all accounts, she was an accomplished composer and musician.
Perhaps it was her love of music and performance that caused her to approach Josephine Baker about heading up the expanded Civil Rights movement she envisioned, and which Dr. King himself had spoken some about before his death. In addition to class issues, which Dr. King spoke about, Coretta Scott King saw that women’s rights and gay/lesbian rights were also civil rights. She wanted the Civil Rights movement to embrace those issues as well, but encountered resistance she correctly feared she could not overcome. The King family had long been friends with Baker and her unusual family, and Coretta Scott King was aware of Baker’s rather progressive views.
Throughout the time that the Kings were fighting for civil rights, Josephine Baker had led her own public campaign to end racial hostility and racist treatment. In addition to her campaign against the Stork Club in New York, and her refusal to ever perform before segregated audiences, she was committed to living a life that modeled racial harmony. In that effort, Baker adopted 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds, she said as a way to show that people of different backgrounds could live together as brothers and sisters. She called her family “The Rainbow Tribe.” She was so well-known for her civil rights work in America at the time, that in 1963 she was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, which she did wearing her French Resistance uniform and medal, with Martin Luther King, Jr. at her side.
Ultimately Baker refused Scott King’s 1968 offer to lead the Civil Rights movement after Dr. King’s death, citing her children as needing her attention more. Scott King herself would have to pick up the mantle, and she did, rising to the challenge. Four days after her husband was assassinated, she led a march for the city workers of Memphis, she said, “because his task is not yet finished.” She is responsible for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta, which allocates millions of dollars in resources and trains thousands of volunteers each year to promote racial harmony and social justice in their communities. She served as head of the King Center for decades before handing the reigns over her to son, Dexter Scott King. In addition to this, she began to push within days of his death and continued to push for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be codified into law. As the keeper of his legacy, she has done an exceptional job.
But she did so much more than that. She worked tirelessly to end social injustice wherever she saw it, and her focus was broad. She was arrested in 1985, along with three of her children, after they protested apartheid outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. She spearheaded efforts to unify activist groups throughout her life, recognizing the importance of numbers and solidarity in the face of social injustice. A relentless promoter of peace and equality, others also recognized her achievement, with more than 60 universities bestowing honorary doctorates on her in her lifetime. Four presidents attended her funeral in 2006.
We will never know what Coretta Scott King and Josephine Baker could have accomplished if they had unified to expand the Civil Rights movement. Whether such a bold vision would have bolstered or fractured a stunned movement is certainly a valid question for scholars to ask. But at this moment in time, after last year’s election, and as the country anticipates the inauguration of our first President of color, it’s a line of thinking too compelling to avoid. How might the last year, and indeed this suspended moment in time look if things had been different so many years ago? In pondering that question, I hope the ultimate and evident point is the importance of starting today to create that world we envision for the future. Coretta Scott King never let a day go by without doing something, even one thing, in the pursuit of progress. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson of her life; that history is not a matter of just great speeches, but of action and dedication.