Several women played significant roles in Martin Luther King’s life and activism. In an interview, Marcia Chatelain, who is a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University noted that “there would be no King holiday, no civil rights movement, no opportunity to be reflective of how far we’ve come if it wasn’t for scores of women.”
“Women were significant in his life, their intellectual production, their spiritual accompaniment. … Women surrounded him in so many ways,” the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, also said.
Coretta Scott King was one of these women. Coretta, herself a staunch civil rights activist, inspired her husband, strategized with him, and assisted him in leading civil rights protests and demonstrations. And, while music was her first love, it was also how she met her second love and future husband.
Coretta met her husband while attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and he was attending Boston University. According to Boston Magazine, the couple met on a blind date around the school in January 1952.
“I waited for him on the steps outside the conservatory on the Huntington Avenue side,” she wrote in her 1969 autobiography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. “The green car pulled up to the curb, and as I walked down the steps, I could see the young man sitting in the car.”
However, King was said to be heartbroken when he arrived in Boston. King had broken up with his former longtime White girlfriend on the advice of his Crozer Theological Seminary classmates after they informed him that the Ebenezer Baptist Church in his hometown of Atlanta would not recognize her as the “first lady” of the congregation. King was set to succeed his father as pastor at the time.
Coretta eventually entered the picture after King inquired of an acquaintance, Mary Louise Powell, about available coeds at New England Conservatory. Mary, a fellow student who knew Coretta, eventually set him up with his future wife. Following their phone conversation, the couple went on a lunch date. According to Boston Magazine, King fell in love with Coretta the first time he saw her, but the feeling was not mutual.
“My first thought was, ‘How short he seems,’ and the second was, ‘How unimpressive he looks,’” Coretta wrote. Her initial thoughts, however, did not have any effect on their planned date. During their lunch, Coretta recalled King telling her that she had everything he “ever wanted in a wife.” But she responded saying, “You don’t even know me.”
Despite Coretta’s reservations, King was able to win her heart and they eventually became inseparable. After Coretta moved to King’s neighborhood, they took their relationship to the next level. They then introduced each other to their respective families. However, Coretta’s relationship with Martin’s father did not begin well.
“He’s gone out with some of the finest girls—beautiful girls, intelligent, from fine families,” Martin’s father told Coretta at the time. “Those girls have a lot to offer.”
Coretta’s future father-in-initial law’s reaction did not deter her, and the couple’s engagement was announced the following Easter. The couple married in a ceremony officiated by King’s father in June 1953. According to Boston Magazine, the couple then briefly stayed in Atlanta before returning to Boston for their final year in the city.
The couple eventually relocated to Alabama, where they became involved in the Montgomery bus boycott two years later, which solidified the couple’s involvement in the civil rights movement.
The Kings’ Montgomery home was bombed just before the boycott, while Coretta was at home alone with their child. They both survived, and Coretta’s father and father-in-law begged her to leave Montgomery, but she refused, claiming that she was married not only to King, but also to the movement. King later stated that if she had left Montgomery, he would have followed her, and the Montgomery bus boycott might not have occurred.
“My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle. While she had certain natural fears and anxieties concerning my welfare, she never allowed them to hamper my active participation in the movement,” King said in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. “In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope. I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Corrie, I could not have withstood the ordeals and tensions surrounding the movement.”
Coretta led her husband’s planned march through Memphis to support striking sanitation workers four days later after her husband was assassinated on April 4, 1968. She later founded the Atlanta Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolent Incorporation. She also visited countries “speaking about unity and equality, advocating for women’s rights, and fighting against segregation and injustice,” according to The Philadelphia Tribune.
Coretta died on January 30, 2006, while seeking treatment for ovarian cancer in Mexico, after suffering a heart attack and stroke in August 2005. She was 78 years old.
Over 14,000 people attended her funeral on February 7, 2006, at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, including US Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, as well as Senator Barack Obama.