Coretta Scott King speaking at anti-war rally, Central Park
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Coretta Scott King and the Civil-Rights Movement’s Hidden Women

She was far more than her husband’s helpmate, but along with many other leaders of the era, her leadership was hidden in plain sight.

Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Image above: Three weeks after her husband’s death, Coretta Scott King speaks in his place at an anti-war rally in Central Park.

The FBI was worried about King. The civil-rights leader was tightening the movement’s ties to anti-war activists. So the bureau stepped up its surveillance.

The target was not Martin Luther King Jr. but Coretta Scott King. The FBI’s fears about the connections she was forging only increased after her husband was killed. For years, agents closely monitored her activities and read her personal letters, keeping Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others in Richard Nixon’s administration informed.

The popular narrative of the civil-rights movement too often relies
on a “great man” version of history—King, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis. Coretta Scott King illuminates the importance of the women who also organized and led the movement, and shows how
their contributions have been sidelined, hidden in plain sight. Remembering Scott King’s career also disrupts the tendency to safely relegate Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement to a sepia-toned past. Her leadership reminds us that the movement and its visionaries have endured.

Coretta Scott King’s popular image has largely been detached from her lifelong politics. After she died, in 2006, she was celebrated in the media as “kind and gentle,” “obedient,” and “beautiful”—mainly as her husband’s “helpmate” rather than as an activist in her own right. “The media never understood Martin,” she once observed, “so they will never understand Coretta.” The caricatures of them as dreamy leader and beautiful helpmate miss the breadth of their political commitments and the diversity of issues they took on.

A famous image from King’s funeral shows her seated in a pew, dressed in black, stoic and veiled. In many ways, she has been trapped behind that veil, rendered as a sort of martyred mother figure who would redeem the nation by sacrificing her husband. “I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner,” a friend recalled her saying, “the wife of Martin, then the widow of Martin, all of which I was proud to be. But I was never just a wife, nor a widow. I was always more than a label.”

Her activism started before her marriage, then complemented and influenced her husband’s political work, and continued long after his assassination, in 1968. She did more than protect her husband’s legacy; she expanded it and kept it relevant. “I am an activist,” she said eight years after his death. “I didn’t just emerge after Martin died—I was always there and involved.” She campaigned for global peace and for racial and social justice until her death, at age 78.

Coretta Scott King at anti-nuclear protest, 1963
Coretta Scott King joins an antinuclear protest on the United Nations Plaza in New York City, in 1963. (Bettmann / Getty)

Born in 1927 near Marion, Alabama, Coretta Scott’s childhood was marked by racial violence. When she was a teenager, her family’s home and her father’s sawmill were burned to the ground by whites who, the Scotts believed, resented the family for its economic independence. She graduated high school as the class valedictorian and attended Antioch College, in Ohio, where she became involved in the campus NAACP and other race- and peace-related activities. She challenged a ban on letting blacks student-teach in local schools and supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party bid for the presidency in 1948.

When she met her future husband, she was more involved in politics than he was. Part of their mutual attraction was political, as letters between them reveal. Fifteen months after marrying, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama, for his job as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In the boycott he led of the city’s segregated buses, his wife played a decisive role. Eight weeks into the 381-day boycott, their house was bombed. Scott King and their 10-week-old firstborn, Yolanda, were at home but escaped uninjured. Terrified by the violence, Scott King’s father and father-in-law urged the family—or at least her and the baby—to leave. She refused. “I realized how important it was for me to stand with Martin,” she recalled in a 1966 essay in New Lady magazine. Over breakfast, her husband told her, “Coretta, you have been a real soldier. You were the only one who stood with me.”

Had she flinched, the trajectory of the bus boycott and the emerging civil-rights movement might have been different. But she stayed on, fielding hundreds of hate calls and helping her husband brave death threats, public condemnation, city officials’ harassment, and dissent among the protesters about how to proceed. The boycott’s success led the Kings to imagine something grander, which took shape in early 1957 in the form of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Scott King was hardly the only woman who sustained the boycott that catapulted her husband to prominence. The Women’s Political Council of Montgomery and its president, Jo Ann Robinson, were the first to call for the boycott, which had begun when Rosa Parks, a civil-rights activist for more than two decades, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. Parks soon lost her job as a department store’s assistant tailor, then spent the next year crisscrossing the country, raising money and helping turn a local boycott into a nationally publicized struggle. Two groups of black women held food sales to raise money for the carpools that kept the protest going. Aurelia Browder and three other women signed on as plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that eventually prompted the Supreme Court’s decision desegregating the city’s buses.

Far beyond Montgomery, women played important roles in the civil-rights movement. In Boston, black mothers such as Ruth Batson and Ellen Jackson led a decades-long campaign that culminated in a federal judge’s 1974 order to use busing to desegregate the city’s public schools. In Cambridge, Maryland, Gloria Richardson headed a campaign focused on economic rights and desegregation. Ella Baker served as the NAACP’s director of branch chapters and then headed to Atlanta to work for the SCLC, where she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At sncc, Diane Nash helped keep the Freedom Rides going, and Fannie Lou Hamer and other women led the fight to register voters in Mississippi.

“Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement,” Scott King observed in New Lady. In Montgomery, after Rosa Parks triggered the bus boycott, it was mostly women—maids, cooks, and such—who found other means of getting to their jobs. “Women have been the ones who have made it possible for the movement to be a mass movement,” Scott King said.

She knew that she, too, had something to contribute to the world, beyond staying home to raise their four children, as her husband expected. And she did. Two of the issues Scott King championed—world peace and economic justice—are often airbrushed from our national celebrations of her husband. She was present at the creation of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in 1957 and represented Women’s Strike for Peace at a nuclear-disarmament conference in Geneva in 1962. When her husband received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964, she impressed upon him the role he must play in pursuing world peace. She considered it her burden, as well.

Notably, she pushed him to come out publicly against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He held back, fearing criticism, but she did not. In 1965, she addressed an anti-war rally at Madison Square Garden, in New York. Later that year, she took her husband’s place when he changed his mind about addressing a peace rally in Washington, D.C. Asked whether he had educated his wife on these issues, he said, “She educated me.” Not until early 1967 did he publicly oppose the war (see “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam”).

Four days after her husband was murdered, she flew to Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike, and led a march in his stead. Three weeks later, she delivered his planned speech at an anti-war protest in New York’s Central Park.

She was resolute that the best memorial was continued activism. King’s assassination opened up a more public role for her. Later that spring, she helped lead the Poor People’s Campaign, which he had conceived in hopes of forcing the government—and the nation—to confront the realities of American poverty. From the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where her husband had been shot, she rallied support for the southern caravan of Washington-bound protesters and declared a dream of her own, “where not some but all of God’s children have food, where not some but all of God’s children have decent housing, where not some but all of God’s children have a guaranteed annual income in keeping with the principles of liberty and grace.” She addressed some 50,000 people in June at the Lincoln Memorial, connecting the scourges of racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War.

After the Poor People’s Campaign ended, her activism continued. She spoke at rallies, lobbied Congress to reject cuts in welfare spending, and advocated a full-employment bill and a guaranteed annual income. In the 1980s, she joined the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, getting arrested outside the embassy in Washington, and met with President Ronald Reagan to press the case. In the late 1990s, she became an advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage. This drew condemnation from some civil-rights leaders. But she connected the expansion of gay rights to the struggle for racial justice, quoting her late husband: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Adamant until her death that the civil-rights movement wasn’t over, Coretta Scott King saw true freedom as far more than a seat at the front of the bus. It meant addressing the economic, racial, and gender inequalities at the heart of American society.

This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “‘Women Have Been the Backbone of the Whole Civil Rights Movement.’”