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.
One of such women was his wife, Coretta Scott King. Also a staunch civil rights activist in her own right, Coretta inspired her husband, strategized with him, and also helped him lead civil rights protests and demonstrations. And though music was her first love, it was also through music that she met her second love and future husband.
Coretta met her husband while she was enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and while he was studying at Boston University. Per Boston Magazine, the pair first 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.”
But King was said to be heartbroken at the time he stepped foot into Boston. Upon the advice of his mates at Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary, King had broken things up with his former longtime White girlfriend after they told him the Ebenezer Baptist Church in his native Atlanta would not recognize her as the “first lady” of the congregation. At the time, King was set to replace his father as pastor.
Coretta ultimately came into the picture after King asked Mary Louise Powell – an acquaintance – about available coeds at New England Conservatory. Mary, who was also a student at the school and knew Coretta, eventually set him up with his future wife. The pair went on a lunch date after speaking on the phone. And though King fell in love with Coretta the first time he saw her, the feeling wasn’t mutual, per Boston Magazine.
“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.”
Coretta’s initial reservations did not, however, stop King from winning her heart as they eventually became inseparable. They also took their relationship to the next level after Coretta moved to King’s neighborhood. The pair then introduced each other to their relatives. But Coretta’s relationship with Martin’s father did not start off 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.”
The initial opinion of Coretta’s future father-in-law did not deter her as the couple’s engagement was announced the following easter. In June 1953, the couple tied the knot in a ceremony that was officiated by King’s father. The couple then briefly stayed in Atlanta before returning to Boston for their last year in the city, Boston Magazine reported.
The couple ultimately moved to Alabama, where they found themselves in the Montgomery bus boycott, two years later which cemented the couple’s involvement in the civil rights movement.
Just before the boycott, the Kings’ Montgomery house was bombed while Coretta was home alone with their child. They both survived and Coretta’s father and father-in-law pleaded with her to leave Montgomery but she refused, saying that she was not only married to King but married to the movement as well. King later said that if she had left Montgomery, he would have followed her and there may have never been a Montgomery bus boycott.
“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.”
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.