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Coretta Scott King

Interview: Coretta Scott King
Pioneer of Civil Rights

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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(On June 18, 1999, Coretta Scott King addressed the Academy of Achievement at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Excerpts from her remarks on that occasion are interspersed throughout this interview.)

What was life like for you when you were growing up?

Coretta Scott King: I grew up in the Deep South. It was totally segregated in terms of race, and everything was separate but unequal. I had wonderful parents who inspired me to be the best person that I could be, and my mother always told me that I was going to go to college, even if she didn't have but one dress to put on. So I grew up knowing that I was going to somehow find a way out of the situation I grew up in.

I grew up on a farm. We were culturally deprived, but we were not poor in the sense that we didn't have very much. We had limited resources, because in the country at that time nobody had very much, and we had probably more than most people.

As an African American child growing up in the segregated South, I was told, one way or another, almost every day of my life, that I wasn't as good as a white child. When I went to the movies with other black children, we had to sit in the balcony while the white kids got to sit in the better seats below. We had to walk to school while the white children rode in school buses paid for by our parents' taxes. Such messages, saying we were inferior, were a daily part of our lives. But I was blessed with parents who taught me not to let anyone make me feel like I wasn't good enough, and as my mother told me, "You are just as good as anyone else. You get an education and try to be somebody. Then you won't have to be kicked around by anybody, and you won't have to depend on anyone for your livelihood, not even a man."

My parents taught me some wonderful values that have have stayed with me, and I've built on them throughout my life. If it hadn't been for my parents, who I consider heroes, I wouldn't be the kind of person I am. I am very thankful and grateful for them. So I went to a good school, a good private school, because that was the only school close by, and it was semi-private at the time, and that school also prepared me to go on to college. I went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch College, as you probably realize, is a college that teaches people how to have a world view. All races and religions were represented there, and it was an excellent education. I had a very broad background in liberal arts, and I had work experience as well. Antioch was about making change in societies, about social change, which was preparing me at that time for the role that I would play later in life.

Did you have any favorite books when you were growing up? Is there something you remember reading as a young person that had a big impact on you?

Coretta Scott King: I was inspired by the words of many, many persons. I used to recite a lot of poetry, and I was inspired by the words of Longfellow, "Lives of great men all remind us..." Even though I was a female, I thought, "Of course, that means me, too."

    "Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime
    And departing leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time."

And so on.

Besides your parents, were there other heroes or role models who were particularly important to you?

Coretta Scott King Interview Photo
Coretta Scott King: I was inspired by the likes of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, because I was in high school during the '40, and of course President Roosevelt was a hero of mine. I used to love to hear him speak, and I recognized the voice whenever he came on the radio, because we didn't have televisions back then. I never got to meet Mrs. Roosevelt. Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, a black woman who became an advisor to President Roosevelt and founded a school in Florida -- the Bethune-Cookman College -- was another great black woman that was a role model for me. And then, of course, there was Paul Robeson, who was a great singer and had such a commanding presence. When I first met him and he performed, you could just feel so much power when he walked out on the stage, and his words were so meaningful -- his very deep voice, both speaking and singing.

We've read stories of your having to go five miles to go to school and of your mother having to arrange for transportation so the black kids in your area could even go to high school. What was that like for you?

It was the way it was. I didn't like it and I always felt less -- I knew I was important as they were but it just -- it sort of brought down a curtain, you know, in a sense in my self-hood and helped me to be more -- become more determined to get out of that situation and to try to do something about it when I finally -- when I had an opportunity. I was determined myself to get an education, to get the best education possible, and to be able to come back and give back something to the community, and that was what I really went to college with my mind on as well as the New England Conservatory of Music. So I attended the New England Conservatory on a scholarship; I had a scholarship to Antioch and a scholarship to the Conservatory.

You were studying music when you met your husband, Dr. King. How did that come about? Was there someone who influenced you or encouraged you in that direction?

Coretta Scott King: I studied elementary education and music at Antioch, and I couldn't get a full music degree but I always wanted to study music; that was my first love. In high school, I had a teacher who influenced me greatly, Miss Olive J. Williams, and she was versatile in music, and I wanted to be like her. She exposed me to the world of classical music. Before then, I had never heard classical music. She exposed me also to the great composers of the world, as well as black performers, which I didn't know about at the time: Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor and others. So I got my foundation and my beginning there, and then, at Antioch, I built on that with another teacher named Walter Anderson. He was the one who eventually encouraged me to apply when I graduated from Antioch to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Just as you were entering into a new chapter of your life in college you met your future husband. What were your early impressions of that developing relationship?

After my first semester in Boston in 1951, I met Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. was studying for his doctorate in systematic theology, and he was going to go back South and pastor a Baptist Church, and he was looking for a wife. I wasn't looking for a husband, but he was a wonderful human being, and he made everyone feel special, and he made me feel very special as a woman. I still resisted his overtures, but after he persisted, I had to pray about it, because my parents were religious, I was brought up in the church, and I had a strong faith. I always believed that there was a purpose for my life, and that I had to seek that purpose, and that if I discovered that purpose, then I believed that I would be successful in what I was doing. And I thought I had found that purpose when I decided that music was going to be my career -- concert singing. I was going to be trained as a concert singer at the New England Conservatory of Music. I studied voice the first year, and after I met Martin and prayed about whether or not I should open myself to that relationship, I had a dream, and in that dream, I was made to feel that I should allow myself to be open and stop fighting the relationship. And that's what I did, and of course the rest is history.

Your career goal to be a professional singer was not the way your life turned out. Could you have imagined that you would have the life that you've led and you would be an important part of the Civil Rights Movement?

Coretta Scott King: No, I didn't.

I don't think that my husband, although he said he was going to go back south and fight to change the system -- and he was thinking about not just in Alabama or in Georgia, but he was talking about making our society more inclusive, changing the system so that everybody could participate -- although he talked about that at that time, we never dreamed that we would have an opportunity, that we would be projected into the forefront of the struggle as we were. We were just going to work from, as he said, a black Baptist Church pulpit. That was the freest place in the society at that time, but we had no idea what God had in store for us. And I do believe it was divine intervention that we were thrust into the forefront of the struggle.

Coretta Scott King Interview Photo
Coretta Scott King Interview Photo

After we married, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where my husband had accepted an invitation to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Before long, we found ourselves in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Martin was elected leader of the protest movement. As the boycott continued, I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance. I came to the realization that we had been thrust into the forefront of a movement to liberate oppressed people, not only in Montgomery but also throughout our country, and this movement had worldwide implications. I felt blessed to have been called to be a part of such a noble and historic cause.

When Dr. King was asked to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott and, in fact, you had just had your first child. What are your memories of those days? What stands out for you?

Coretta Scott King: Well, first of all, I was extremely excited about what was going on because this was something that had never happened before and I knew this was history making, and I also knew that it was not only happening in Montgomery but it was -- the impact of this was maybe much further -- much more extensive than Montgomery because during the Montgomery Boycott we heard that there was a boycott in Johannesburg, South Africa, of busses and also there was one in Mobile and in Tallahassee so it was like it was spreading but we also knew that the struggle was much bigger than a boycott. It was about the injustices in our society. It was about changing the society in such a way and changing the laws of the government locally and certainly nationally we had to create new laws to protect us and protect the rights once they were won.

On a personal level, you had an extraordinary realization during the time of the Montgomery Alabama bus desegration court hearings. Can you take us back to this time in your life and express your personal concerns, but also the results of your soul searching?

Coretta Scott King: We even experienced what was like modern day miracles when things happened. Like when the Supreme Court had ruled on bus desegregation, we were in court that day because the City of Montgomery was having a hearing and was trying to outlaw our transportation system and, if it had, maybe the people would have gotten tired and gone back to the buses. And my husband was very worried and I said to him, "You know what? I think that by the time we go to court and by the time the judge rules that the Supreme Court will have ruled." And we felt that if the Supreme Court ruled it would be in our favor and that was my consolation. Sure enough while we were in court Associated Press -- an Associated Press reporter handed a note to my husband and it said, "The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled today that bus segregation in Montgomery is unconstitutional." So that ended the court session. So it was that kind of thing and intervention again that helped us to realize that we were doing the right thing, and we continued to do that, and more importantly that we had been called. I had been called personally to be in Montgomery at that time because I had always sought my purpose. As a teenager I began to think about what my life was going to be like and going to college. That was one level. Going beyond there was the next level. Going to prepare for a music career but when I got to Boston there was, I realized, another reason for me being there. And then I wondered why Martin Luther King, Jr., a minister, that I didn't think I would ever marry a minister, and then he was going back south, I wanted to go back south but I wasn't prepared to go at that time, because I had to finish my work and finally in Montgomery -- and then things began to happen and the house was bombed. So I did a lot of soul searching after that and tried to remember, you know, try to think back of how I got there and I realized that all my life I had been being prepared for this role and that we were supposed to be there in Montgomery. And it was a great feeling of satisfaction because I realized that I had found my purpose.

Coretta Scott King Interview Photo
Coretta Scott King Interview Photo

But you finished your music education, didn't you? How did you make use of your musical training after your marriage?

Coretta Scott King: I finished Conservatory with a degree in voice and music education, and my second instrument was violin.

I started doing concerts when I was a college student, and after we moved to Montgomery -- my husband was called to a church there -- I continued to perform. I performed concerts the first year, got pregnant, had to stop, performed between babies -- I have four children -- and I was doing standard concerts when I had my fourth child. I realized I could not continue to do that that way. And, I developed the "Freedom Concert" concept, where I narrated the story of the civil rights movement that we were involved in, and sang freedom songs in between the narrations that told the story of our struggle from Montgomery to Washington at that time. In 1964, I did my debut with my Freedom Concert at Town Hall, raised money for the cause, and the rest of the time I raised money for my husband's organization doing Freedom Concerts across the country and so forth.

There were threats on your husband's life, your life and your family. When did you realize that you would be dedicating your life to this movement?

Coretta Scott King: I realized when Montgomery started that this was probably the reason we were called to Montgomery. After my house was bombed, and of course, all the threats on my husband's life, on my life too. I realized I could have been killed as well -- because I was in the house when the bomb hit the front porch -- with my young baby. And the callers had been calling, and they said that they were going to bomb our house, told my husband they were going to bomb his house and kill his family if he didn't leave town in three days. And of course he didn't leave town in three days, and they did bomb the house. So knowing that they meant what they said, because they actually did bomb the house -- the bomb was not strong enough to destroy the house, but if it had been, then that would have been very, very sad for all of us, certainly for me and my baby and my husband. But the fact is that I had to deal with the fact that if I continued in the struggle, I too could be killed, and that's when I started praying very seriously about my commitment and whether or not I would be able to stick with my husband to continue in the struggle. And of course it wasn't that difficult. It was a struggle, but I knew that we were doing the right thing. I always felt that what was happening in Montgomery was part of God's will and purpose, and we were put there to be in the forefront of that struggle, and it wasn't just a struggle relegated to Montgomery, Alabama or the South, but that it had worldwide implications. And I felt, really, a sense of fulfillment that I hadn't felt before, that this was really what I was supposed to be doing, and it was a great blessing to have discovered this, and to be doing what was God's will for your life.

Coretta Scott King Interview Photo
Coretta Scott King Interview Photo

After we were successful in desegregating the buses in Montgomery, the nonviolent revolution we launched in Montgomery spread like a prairie fire across the Southern states. My husband led nonviolent protest campaigns against racism and segregation in cities across the South as well as in Chicago, Cleveland, and other cities in the North. During this time, I had three more children and participated in movement activities as much as possible. People asked me how was I able to do this and raise four children at the same time. I can only reply that when God calls you to a great task, he provides you with the strength to accomplish what he has called you to do. Faith and prayer, family and friends were always available when I needed them, and of course Martin and I always were there for each other. I learned that when you are willing to make sacrifices for a great cause, you will never be alone, because you will have divine companionship and the support of good people. This same faith and cosmic companionship sustained me after my husband was assassinated, and gave me the strength to make my contribution to carrying forward his unfinished work.

What inspired you? What kept you going?

Coretta Scott King: Well, it was the belief that we were doing the right thing. Because it had never happened before it was like, you know, the Supreme Court decision had been rendered in 1954 and this was in 1955 and we were all motivated by that and knowing that this meant the beginning of breaking down the system of segregation. We recognized that if the schools could desegregate this means that other things can desegregate as well so with Montgomery happening it was like an intervention there that God had planted Rosa Parks and also Martin Luther King, Jr. And so you had the sense that something very, very significant was happening and that it had -- it would have impact beyond -- around the world that we were not only struggling to free the people of the south but oppressed people around the world. And we had no idea where it was leading but we had a sense that it was leading to something much more significant than what we were involved in at the time. And each time there was things -- for instance, the stabbing incident when Martin was stabbed in Harlem. I mean, it's like it made no sense except that God was preparing us for something even bigger. And then when the Nobel Peace Prize came along, which we were rewarded in a sense for our struggles, it was like but this is still not it, because we have not achieved the peace that he was awarded -- the award represented, but we still have a long way to go. So it was always not knowing what the future held, but we knew that we were on the right path and you had a sense of, as Martin used to say, "cosmic companionship," and that kept you going.

Coretta Scott King Interview Photo
Coretta Scott King Interview Photo

Someone else in your position might have felt that she had given enough, or sacrificed too much, and that someeone else could carry the burden for a while. Why didn't you feel that way?

Coretta Scott King: When I say I was married to the cause, I was married to my husband whom I loved -- I learned to love, it wasn't love at first sight -- but I also became married to the cause. It was my cause, and that's the way I felt about it. So when my husband was no longer there, then I could continue in that cause, and I prayed that God would give me the direction for my life, to give me the strength to do what it was, and the ability to do what it was that he had called me to do. And I was trying to seek, 'What is it that I'm supposed to do, now that Martin is no longer here?" And I finally determined that it was to develop an institution. I was already involved in building the institution, but I wasn't sure that that was it. I thought maybe it might have been with women, but then, of course, I didn't get that feeling in particular, but always, because I felt there was a need to have more women involved, in organizing them as a support group to my husband, and I encouraged them to do that. And he didn't do that in particular, and I thought, well maybe then, that might be what I'm supposed to do. But then I finally determined that it was the King Center, because Martin's message and his meaning were so powerful, and his spirit I felt needed to be continued. I know that people's spirits live on, but I think in a very positive, meaningful way, that young people would know that that influence was being continued. So I felt that my role, then, was to develop an institution, to institutionalize his philosophy, his principles of nonviolence and his methodology of social change, and that's what I have spent my years doing.

For 27 years, I was the president, founder, CEO -- I'm still a founder; you're always the founder -- but I retired from that position in 1995, and my son Dexter is now in that position, but I still continue to do all the work that I can, to reach as many people as I can with the message.

How do you see your work now? What challenges do you see for humanity in the new century?

Coretta Scott King: I think what I've tried to do is to empower people to understand that they can make a difference. And by using the method of nonviolence as a way of life, it becomes internalized into your life; so everything that you seek to do, you use those principles and those steps, based on those principles, and the steps and methodologies, so that if you have a problem or a conflict in whatever it is you are doing, you are able to better resolve that. And if it is dealing with people, certainly you'll know how to resolve that and become reconciled and to move forward.

Coretta Scott King Interview Photo
Today we have so many problems. Some of them are new problems. You have the human rights struggle continuing, but you also have problems like HIV and AIDS. I think young people have to be dedicated to find ways to deal with these problems, to educate the whole world, because the world as a whole needs to be educated. We have a lot of education that needs to be done here in this country so that people can avoid getting the disease. We know that people can live with the disease, but there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done there. There are other problems that we are fighting now. Violence is so pervasive. People have access to guns, and so many people are being killed. I've done a lot of work with the handgun control organization -- it's called the Brady Organization now -- with Sarah and Jim Brady.

Coretta Scott King: I think that nonviolence allows you and empowers you to do what is necessary, because what you do is build coalitions. You can't do all of it by yourself, but you can put together a coalition and get other people involved, or join organizations that are already involved and continue to work to eradicate poverty, of course, since poverty is still with us, very much so. My husband -- it was one of the triple evils that he talked about -- poverty, racism and war. And of course, they all are forms of violence, and we have to continue to work to make sure that people everywhere have a decent livelihood, that they have jobs, they have housing, they have health care, they have quality education. All of these areas that we still have to work on and to improve, so that the quality of life for all people is improved, and we can achieve indeed the "beloved community" that Martin talked about, that I believe in.

Did your belief in nonviolence ever waver? It was tested time after time after time. Did you ever think that maybe nonviolence was not the way to go?

Coretta Scott King: No, I really -- I never thought that it wasn't the way to go. I always -- I guess because of my religious upbringing and, you know, I believed that even though we kind of stray away from it but you know what is right. I mean that you've been taught it was wrong to kill. I believe that firmly. I believe that you have to try to resolve your conflicts without violence. I believe that you have to give something back to society that has nurtured you and so I never got to the point where I felt that nonviolence was not viable. I just felt that when there was violence and it came from within, and very seldom violence did come from within, I realized that it wasn't that it wouldn't work, it's that people didn't follow the proper steps in trying to achieve it because there are a set of principles and there are a set of steps in the methodology that we were taught about nonviolence. And when we follow those they work. It may take a while but in order to have a peaceful solution and a lasting peace it has to be a nonviolent approach.

If one of these young people came to you and asked you for advice about how they should live their lives or how they can achieve what they hope to achieve, what would you say to them? What would be your advice to young people today?

Coretta Scott King: Well, certainly you have to get the best possible education and training that's available and you have to decide that you need to learn as much about the world and society. And these young people live in a global village really.

Everybody lives in a global village and a global community. I didn't know at the time. I didn't live in a global community, but I had a vision that I would be living in a global village. I knew I had to be prepared to be comfortable anywhere in the world. That was what my goal was. So these young people are being prepared differently than I was because they live in a different time but the most important thing they have to decide is not just to get an education and to be selfish about it but that they must prepare themselves to give back and to make a difference in the world. We have to create what my husband called "The Beloved Community." If we are to survive we have to learn how to solve our problems and resolve our conflicts in a nonviolent manner. And so I think it's important for them to realize that they have a personal responsibility, each one of them.

Looking to the future, what must be a priority for the next generation in order to foster a society of non-violence and acceptance?

When I sat in the audience today and I thought about these young people who had gathered and I thought about how this all came together, I just wish that there were more gatherings such as what we have experienced here the weekend at the International Achievement Summit because if we are going to continue to change society for the better and if our world is to survive, we have got to invest in these young people in a way so that they know which is the best way and the right way. And I think the Academy is doing a great job.

Thank you so much for spending this time with us, Mrs. King.

Coretta Scott King: Thank you.

(Mrs. King closed her address to the Academy at the National Cathedral with the following words.)

On March 31st, 1968, just four days before Martin was assassinated, he delivered his last sermon, entitled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," right here in this cathedral. In the sermon, Martin inspired us with his unshakable faith in the triumph of good over evil, and he said, "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." And so today, I want to challenge you to make a courageous commitment, not only to achieve personal success, but to use your success to help create this beautiful symphony of brotherhood and sisterhood, and if you embrace this challenge with prayer and faith and determination, you will surely succeed, and the 21st Century will become a glorious new age of peace and progress for all humankind. May God bless you all and give you the strength to fulfill your dreams. Thank you.

View Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech on the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

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interpretation of Dr. King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

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