Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King is one of the most influential women in the world. She entered the world stage in 1955 as wife of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as a leading participant in the American Civil Rights Movement. Some five decades later, Mrs. King remains as passionate as ever about serving the underserved, about the inalienable rights of all human beings, and about preventing AIDS from further ravaging a people and a planet.
“AIDS is a human crisis, no matter where you live,” she said while addressing a gathering of the of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Anyone who sincerely cares about the future of Black America had better be speaking out about AIDS, calling for preventive measures and increased funding for research and treatment.”
Speaking out is something Mrs. King does often. She has traveled throughout the United States and world as an advocate of racial and economic justice, women’s and children’s rights, gay and lesbian dignity, religious freedom, the needs of the poor and homeless, full-employment, healthcare, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and ecological sanity. She is also not afraid to bring up topics many might expect her to shy away from, homophobia and substance abuse, to name two.
“I have a special responsibility as a human rights activist to speak out against homophobia, which I am convinced contributes mightily to the spread of AIDS. Homophobia encourages discrimination, which undermines the effort to improve research, prevention, and treatment. It prevents people from getting properly informed and treated. Homophobia also contributes to the failure of elected officials to adequately fund needed AIDS programs.”
But how has her message been received in the Black community?
“It has been generally well-received, with a few exceptions,” she notes. “I feel we are making significant progress in educating African Americans about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. African Americans account for most of the new AIDS cases, and it is imperative that we speak out against homophobia in the Black community, so that people with AIDS will not be intimidated from getting the care they need, and so we can educate our young people in a spirit of openness. Homophobia is another form of bigotry, and if we believe in dignity and equality for ourselves, we can not in good conscience tolerate homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
Mrs. King also advocates a more compassionate approach to substance abuse, one that acknowledges the problem as well as identifies the different reasons why individuals use recreational drugs.
“Substance abuse is a massive problem in this country,” she says. “We have to do much more to make people aware that is it’s a huge obstacle in the struggle against AIDS.”
Born and raised in Marion, Alabama, Mrs. King received a B.A. in music and education from Antioch College in Ohio, then went on to study concert singing at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. While in Boston she met her husband, who was studying for his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. They were married in 1953, and later took up residence in Montgomery, Alabama, with Mrs. King assuming the many functions of pastor’s wife at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
During her husband’s career, Mrs. King devoted most of her time to raising their four children. From the earliest days, however, she balanced mothering and movement work, speaking before church, civic, college, and fraternal and peace groups. In 1957, she and Dr. King journeyed to Ghana to mark that country’s independence. In 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King spent nearly a month in India on a pilgrimage to sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964, she accompanied Dr. King to Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since her husband’s assassination in 1968, Mrs. King has devoted much of her energy to building the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a living memorial to her husband’s life and dream. The King Center is part of a 23-acre national historic park that hosts over one million visitors a year. As founding President, Chair, and Chief Executive Officer, Mrs. King dedicated herself to providing local, national and international programs that have trained tens of thousands of people in Dr. King’s philosophy and methods. Mrs. King also spearheaded the massive campaign to establish Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday. In 1995 she turned over leadership of the Center to her son, Dexter Scott King, who is bringing his own vision to promoting Dr. King’s teachings through information technology.
One of the most influential African-American leaders of our time, Mrs. King has received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities; has authored three books and a nationally-syndicated column; and has served on, and helped found, dozens of organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation, and the Black Leadership Roundtable.
Mrs. King has also dialogued with heads of state, including prime ministers and presidents, and she has put in time on picket lines with welfare rights mothers. She has met with great spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. She has witnessed the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat at the signing of the Middle East Peace Accords. She has stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.
A woman of wisdom, compassion and vision, Coretta Scott King has also been personally affected by the pandemic, one more reason she continues to soldier onward.
“I have family members and friends who have been affected by AIDS,” she says, “and they have expressed their appreciation. As long as I am able and there is a need, I intend on continuing to speak out on AIDS.”
And no doubt, continue to make a difference in a world that needs her as much today as it did five decades ago.