Remembering Coretta Scott King

When we commemorate her husband Dr. King (and we often do), we not only often forget all those non-celebrated activists who took to the streets or engaged in boycotts or risked their lives for the simple right to vote, to be considered citizens; we also often forget the woman who was perhaps closest to him, literally as well as in courage and stature, during his great leadership of the modern civil rights movement.

Commentators and history textbooks have long chosen to remember Coretta Scott King first as a wife-and then widow-of a great man, rather than as a great woman in her own right who worked toward the goal of social equality tirelessly not only during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, but up until her last days as a uniquely dynamic human rights advocate.

She not only fought for the rights of African Americans (and founded the King Center after her husband’s death), but also became a spokesperson for the fight against South African apartheid (and a critic of apartheid’s oft-forgotten U.S. government support); an outspoken supporter for gay and lesbian rights; and an advocate for the health and human rights of people with HIV and AIDS. She also continued to speak out against war, including the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"When you use war as a way of settling disputes, you only cause more war," she said in January 2003. "In the long run, the only way to have peace is to use peaceful means." (A comment on our poor historical memory of Mrs. King as an activist distinct from her late husband could be seen even in 2003-in the Reuters article that actually carried this anti-war statement. The title was, "King’s Widow Speaks out Against War in Iraq".) [1]

As former SNCC leader and longtime Congressman John Lewis said on Tuesday, "Long before she met and married Dr. King, she was an activist for peace and civil rights and for civil liberties." [2]

In addition to being alongside her husband, not behind him (to paraphrase scholar and Bennett College President Johnnetta B. Cole during an interview Tuesday on PBS’s Jim Lehrer show), during the many marches and speeches he helped lead in the late 1950s to the late 1960s, from Montgomery to Memphis, Coretta Scott King also entered other streams of sixties "movement" activism, speaking out against war and affiliating herself early on with the anti-nuclear testing turned anti-Vietnam War organization Women Strike for Peace (WSP).

Historian Amy Swerdlow tells us in her history of WSP that in the early 1960s, in the group’s infancy (its first strike effort was in November 1961), Mrs. King lent her enthusiasm, her powerful voice, and her established reputation to their work-which swiftly became an international movement. "Peace among nations, and peace in Birmingham, Alabama, cannot be separated," wrote King to WSP leaders in May 1963. [3]

One could argue that King’s decision to publicly support (and thus recognize the importance of) the fledgling Women Strike for Peace linked the struggle for peace with the struggle for black equality years before the Vietnam War became seriously contested, at which point her husband and other activists began to make that connection more explicit in their rhetoric.

Women’s liberation movement leader and historian Jo Freeman met Mrs. King in 1966. In a memoir of the women’s movement and her own growth as a feminist and activist, she wrote:

During the six weeks I worked for [King] my admiration grew. She was much more than a minister’s wife and mother. Her personal ambitions and concerns had been stifled by Dr. King’s prominence and the need to play her part in the civil rights movement, but they had not been lost; she had plans to move on her own interests when times were less intense. Before I left, my growing admiration led to another feminist "click." I realized that I was 21 years old, and she was the first woman I had ever met that I truly admired. [4]

Coretta Scott King not only stood for civil rights and peace both prior to and following her husband’s assassination, but also represented a strong, committed activist woman in the "movement" more broadly conceived. (Also, let’s not forget she was raising four children the entire time.) She may not have focused her work on feminist concerns, but as Freeman testified (and surely others would agree), her example provided a model of what women could be and could do, especially in the midst of a social movement whose decision-making leadership was mostly comprised of men. If King didn’t always wear a feminist button, she undoubtedly lived a feminist life as exemplified by her dedication to social equality for all people.

Frustrated by the male-dominated and sometimes sexist "movement" organizations-especially SDS and SNCC-many women activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s left the anti-war and civil rights struggles to take up their own important battle against oppression and sexism. Coretta Scott King was not of the Baby Boomer generation; if she had been, she may well have gone with them.

But because she wasn’t, and because discrimination had not suddenly ended with the passage of the important Civil Rights legislation in 1964, 1965, and 1968, the show had to go on, even when her husband could no longer stand by her side. That show ran longer than any Broadway production, and will continue in the activism of the countless people she has inspired.

Indeed, Coretta Scott King never stopped working toward realizing her husband’s "dream." But judging by her range of activism and achievements since that terrible day in April 1968, it’s also clear that she very much made those efforts-and that dream-her own.

Robert R. Goldberg is a former high school history teacher, and is currently a graduate student in history at University of Pennsylvania. 


[1] Karen Jacobs, "King’s Widow speaks out against War in Iraq ," Reuters, January 15, 2003.

[2] Karen Jacobs, "Rights Leader Coretta Scott King Dies," Reuters, January 31, 2003.

[3] Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 92-93.

[4] Jo Freeman, "On the Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement from a Strictly Personal Perspective,"; also in The Feminist Memoir Project , eds. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998).