Meet Coretta Scott King, a soprano and violinist who used music in her civil…

February 16, 2021, 13:07 | Updated: February 16, 2021 at 1:20 p.m.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife, Coretta Scott King, was a celebrated soprano and violinist
Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King, was a celebrated soprano and violinist.

Image: Getty

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Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife was an unsung civil rights activist with a deep passion and talent for music.

“A lot of people don’t know me and think that I am a cold, loveless person. That I only became what I am because I am Martin’s wife, ”says racial equality advocate and trained singer Coretta Scott King in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.

For much of her life, King’s accomplishments have been downplayed alongside those of her husband, social justice activist Martin Luther King Jr.

And their still largely unknown story began with music.

In the family’s hometown in then-separated Alabama, Coretta Scott’s mother became known for her singing voice and performed solos in church. “When I was growing up there was no other place where I could sing for her,” says Coretta Scott in the same interview.

Bathed in songs from a young age, Scott soon began playing his own solos by singing spiritual and hymns in church and school. “I became the star student the teacher was demonstrating with when the dean-supervisor came over.”

In high school, Scott’s music teacher taught her about the great African American singers in opera. “She introduced us to the classics … Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes.”

Then she says: “I got the idea that I would really like to study music because when I first heard classical music, I liked it.”

Read more: 11 Black Opera Singers You Should Know>

Studied music at the New England Conservatory

In her final two years at school, Scott threw herself into music. She became the leading soprano for the school’s senior choir, played trumpet and piano, sang in the choir, played in school musicals – and found time to lead a choir in her home church.

She later received a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, where she met her future husband. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day 1953 and married in June of that year.

Scott King finished her vocal and musical education with her second instrument, the violin, and the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama.

Upon graduation, Scott King envisioned a career in the music industry. “After we moved to Montgomery, my husband was called to a church there [and] I kept playing, ”she says.

“I gave concerts the first year, got pregnant, had to quit, performed between babies – I have four children – and I did standard concerts when I had my fourth child. I realized I couldn’t go on like this. “

Coretta Scott King sings on the piano with her children
Coretta Scott King sings on the piano with her children.

Image: Getty

Coretta Scott King’s “Freedom Concerts”

So King found a way to introduce music for her and her husband’s cause.

“I developed the ‘Freedom Concert’ concept, where I told the story of the civil rights movement we were part of and sang songs of freedom between the narratives that told the story of our Montgomery to Washington struggle at the time,” said she says.

“In 1964 I made my debut with my freedom concert at the town hall, raised money for the cause and the rest of the time I raised money for my husband’s organization, which did freedom concerts across the country and so on.”

King later decided to rest her vocal cords and devote all of her energy to activism.

“When you’re a performer, and especially a singer, you have to rest a lot; you can’t be tired of singing,” she says. “Often times I don’t get the amount of rest that I need. It’s not easy to get back to it unless you have some time to devote to it.

“And there’s always an important cause, a need, that seems to be more important than what you want to do. And because I care so much about the people and the needs of our community and our world, it seems kind of selfish to think about what I want to do. “

Read more: The haunting last words of unarmed black men, powerfully set to music>

Coretta Scott King joins hands and sings with antiwar protesters
Coretta Scott King joins hands and sings with antiwar protesters.

Image: Getty

Civil rights campaign

After her husband was murdered in 1968, King himself took over the leadership of the civil rights movement and became active in the women’s movement and campaigned for LGBTQ + rights and opposition to apartheid.

She founded the King Center, an organization for nonviolent social change on behalf of her husband, and managed to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

Coretta Scott King died on January 30, 2006 of complications from ovarian cancer. She was 78 years old.

She was buried the following month at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Georgia. Over 14,000 people were in attendance, including US Presidents George W. Bush, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton – and then Senator Barack Obama.

Speaking at the memorial, George W. Bush said: “Throughout her years, Coretta Scott King has shown that a person with conviction and strength can also be a beautiful soul.”

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