A shared promise and more: Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Dr. William C. Welburn, vice president for inclusive excellence

One of the extraordinary passages in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is deeply personal. It is his courtship and marriage to Coretta Scott. They met in Boston – he a doctoral student at Boston University, and she a bachelor of music student in voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. Historians such as Clayborne Carson and Jeanne Theoharis have noted that at the time they met, Coretta was more politically active than Martin, having been involved in the postwar peace movement and her campus’ chapter of the NAACP.

When Carson spoke here at Marquette two years ago in a remembrance of King 50 years after his assassination, he read from the text of an exchange of letters between Coretta and Martin. She made it clear that the traditional role of a preacher’s wife had little appeal. She challenged him to do more, to share her commitment to fundamental rights. Carson and Theoharis both pointed to a “socialist utopian novel” she sent Martin, inquiring: “I shall be interested to know your reactions to Bellamy’s predictions about our future.”

In the years after that historic evening on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Coretta Scott King did not simply continue Martin Luther King’s work. Her presence in the Poor People’s Campaign and with Black women hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1968 and 1969 respectively signaled her resolve to be the voice for human rights on the global stage that she had always been. And for the rest of her life, she was there fighting against Apartheid in South Africa and the war in Iraq, supporting gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, and as a voice in peace, racial justice and human rights movements around the world.

One might say that Coretta and Martin shared a promise to one another that was greater than most couples. But there is more to the story.

To understand Martin Luther King is to appreciate all of those who influenced him and helped him find voice in troubled times, whether that influence came from the wisdom of Bayard Rustin, the activism of John Lewis, or power of Mahalia Jackson. They all helped him understand and value nonviolence, rights across the lines that society draws on race and gender, and the commitment to peace in our world. But the most profound and intergenerational message to all of us may come from Coretta Scott King, who once said, “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”