You know Coretta Scott King for her civil rights activism and being a wife to Martin Luther King Jr., however, few know that in her early life, Coretta was a well-known singer and violin player.
Another interesting twist is that the young soprano won a fellowship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, the city where she met future husband King, who was a doctoral candidate at Boston University’s School of Theology.
According to Coretta, she inherited her musical talents from her mother, who sang in the church because “there was no place else to sing for her when I was growing up.”
Life in segregated Alabama was tough but it was here she had her early music education, singing solos in the church as well in school. “I became the star pupil that the teacher showed off with when the dean supervisor came around.”
Upon hearing classical music for the first time, she purposed to study music because she liked it and also because of a teacher she encountered.
In an interview conducted in Chicago in 2004, Coretta explained more. “In high school, I had a teacher who influenced me greatly, Miss Olive J. Williams, and she was versatile in music, and I wanted to be like her. She exposed me to black performers, which I didn’t know about at the time: Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor and others.”
“So I got my foundation and my beginning there, and then, at Antioch, I built on that with another teacher named Walter Anderson. He was the one who eventually encouraged me to apply when I graduated from Antioch to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston,” she added.
For Coretta, music was her first love and it was also through music that she met her second love and future husband, King. They married in June 1953, after announcing their engagement in the Atlanta Daily World on Valentine’s Day of the same year.
A move to Montgomery, Alabama was the next step after Coretta finished her degree in voice and piano. Whiles King was called to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, she continued to perform.
However, there was a challenge. “I performed concerts the first year, got pregnant, had to stop, performed between babies – I have four children – and I was doing standard concerts when I had my fourth child. I realized I could not continue to do that that way.”
Said to have sacrificed her dreams as a singer and musician, Coretta explained in her National Visionary Leadership Project interview, “If you’re a performer and particularly a singer you have to rest a lot, you can’t sing tired. Often I don’t get the amount of rest I need. It’s not easy to get back into it unless you have some time just to give to that.”
But the phenomenal woman donned her civil rights hat, not totally neglecting her singing gift.
“… 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 across the country and so forth,” she stated.
When her husband was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Coretta led her husband’s planned march through Memphis to support striking sanitation workers four days later.
She went on to build the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violence Social Change in Atlanta and the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Non-Violence Incorporation. She also traveled to countries “speaking about unity and equality, taking a stance for women’s rights, and fighting against segregation and injustice,” according to a report by The Philadelphia Tribune.
Coretta suffered a heart attack and stroke in August 2005 and died on January 30, 2006, while seeking treatment for ovarian cancer in Mexico. She was 78.
Her funeral held on February 7, 2006, at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, had over 14,000 people in attendance, including U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, as well as Barack Obama, then a senator.