Women’s History Month: 5 Things You May Not Know About Coretta Scott King
Corretta Scott King is most widely known as the woman who stood and marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 60s, through the Civil Rights Movement days, and picked up the baton after his assassination in 1968.
But throughout her life, she had been a human rights leader, crusading for justice and standing up for the marginalized. In fact, today’s generation is benefitting from her actions from decades ago.
Here’s a list of unique things about her life and work.
She Took An Early Stand On Vietnam Just After Dr. King Was Killed
Dr. King took an early and initially unpopular position on the war in Vietnam, which had been growing and costing American lives since at least 1960. Americans saw defeating communism at any cost as a priority, but King saw how it did little more than kill innocents and U.S. troops, particularly soldiers of color. After his death, Coretta Scott King continued to speak out as the nation became more divisive and unpopular. On Apr. 27, 1968, just weeks after burying her husband, she spoke in New York, denouncing the war and calling on then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to bring the troops home.
In the video above, she reads her husband’s speech on the war entitled “The 10 Commandments of Vietnam.”
The MLK Holiday Was The Result of Her Work
King was assassinated Apr. 4, 1968; four days later, two Black congressmen, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a Democrat, and Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, a Republican, introduced a bill to honor him with a federal holiday. A year later, the King Center, founded by Corretta Scott King, called for nationwide celebrations in support. States began to pass their bills making King’s birthday a national holiday.
After years of stagnation, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to pass the bill and joined with her as she testified in front of Congress in support, but it was defeated in the House by just five votes.
Months later, Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday” on his 1980 Hotter Than July LP, dedicated to making King’s birthday a holiday. This created further political momentum for its passage. In 1982, King and Wonder delivered to Congress more than 6 million signatures in its favor to then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
This time Conyers’ reintroduced bill passed the House 338-90. Despite efforts to undermine it in the Senate, the bill won Senate approval and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983., with the first federal observance in 1986.
She Graduated From The New England Conservatory of Music
Although she’s well-known for her civil rights work, Corretta Scott King also had quite a resume as a classically trained singer. According to the New England Conservatory of Music, she graduated from the school with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education in 1954.
While she was there, she studied as a vocalist under classical soprano Marie Sundelius. She also performed with the NEC Chorus and served as a member of the school’s chapter of the Music Educators National Conference. In 1952, on a blind date, she met a young man from Atlanta who was studying for his doctoral degree across town at Boston College. They were married 16 months later. The young man’s name was Martin Luther King.
Corretta Scott King received an honorary doctorate from NEC in 1971 and its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004. Above is a sample of her virtuous soprano voice, singing in 1963 at the funeral of the four girls killed in an act of domestic terrorism at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
She met with Winnie Mandela When Nelson Mandela Was Imprisoned
In 1986, when South Africa was still embroiled in apartheid and the Black population, there was brimming with anger over the sustained system of segregation and subjugation. Knowing the obvious historical parallels, King went to the country to meet with leaders—on both sides of the controversy. She went to the home of Winnie Mandela in Soweto and later described it as "one of the greatest and most meaningful moments of my life," according to The Washington Post. The conversation was private, and it is still not known what they discussed to this day.
She stood up for people living with HIV/AIDS and the LGBTQ community long before many others
“How many times do we have to say it? AIDS is one of the most deadly killers of Black people, and I think anyone who cares about the future of Black America had better be speaking out about AIDS,” King said at the debut of the HBCU AIDS Memorial Quilt Initiative in 1999. This had been part of years of activism on behalf of those who suffered from the affliction and was among the most vocal to push back against homophobic stereotyping surrounding the disease.
In fact, she was an ardent supporter of the gay rights movement and an advocate of same-sex marriage when President Reagan and the White House paid scant attention to issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. Balking at a 1986 Supreme Court decision that harmed the gay community, she was a featured speaker at the New York Gala for the Human Rights Campaign Fund that year. She also teamed up in 1994 with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank to back the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibited discrimination against gay employees.
“Like Martin,” she said in her support of the LGBTQ community, “I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others. So I see this bill as a step forward for freedom and human rights in our country and a logical extension of the Bill of Rights and the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and ‘60s.”