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Coretta Scott King was an Activist, Not Just the Woman Behind the Man

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is memorialized as one of the most prominent figures of the civil rights movement. Characterizing himself as “a drum major for justice,” King fought for African Americans living in the Jim Crow era who were hampered by the outright racism and discrimination of the time. Coretta Scott King was often at his side in this fight, but she was not the ornamental figure as some may try to paint her. Coretta Scott King was an activist in her own right and should be remembered as a humanitarian who pushed for centering women’s voices, especially in peacebuilding.

Coretta Scott King (R) with Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson (L) in a march on the United Nations Plaza, New York City, Nov. 1, 1963. (Image: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Coretta Scott King was born in Alabama and knew early of the impact of racial discrimination and violence. Her connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. was based in their mutual acknowledgment that African Americans living in the United States were living under siege and that change was sorely required. Where some women might have chosen to exclusively devote themselves to motherhood, Scott King, an established activist with the NAACP since college, chose to serve in both roles as a mother AND an activist.

Rather than shrink from the public after her husband’s assassination, Scott King pressed on and continued to fight for racial and economic justice. Scott King also recognized the importance of advancing world peace and was one of the founders of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, one-half of the originating organizations of what is today known as Peace Action. The Committee was one of the earliest voices against the Vietnam War, a position Scott King encouraged her husband to take long before he finally spoke out against the war. This position would result in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tapping her phone lines and reading her mail for fear that she would tie the civil rights movement with the anti-war movement. Scott King also expanded her activism to include the fight for human rights, same-sex marriage, and the fight for world peace.

Coretta Scott King speaking at the Houston Civic Center (Image: CORBIS)

Scott King was an ardent proponent of elevating women’s voices. In her book, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, Scott King says, “…I felt that as women, we had much to contribute. In fact, for the longest time, way before I married Martin, I had believed that women should allow our essence and presence to shine, rather than letting ourselves be buried or shunted to the sidelines.” Scott King was a part of the founding of the National Organization for Women and was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom: two organizations that focus on putting women front and center. She also represented Women’s Strike for Peace at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1962. Scott King’s involvement highlights how important it is to have women at the forefront in conversations that impact the world.

Scott King’s commitment to nonviolence is just as applicable today as it was 50 years ago. Our current administration would have the nation believe that we are in an arms race with foreign countries and that bigger, “badder” weapons are the only way to deter threats against the United States. This strong-arm mentality hasn’t had the impact our administration has hoped for. Rather it highlights the need for a more feminist approach to nuclear policy. Instead of trying to win the biggest nuke contest, we should be focused on building peace and diplomatic relations.

Much like the philosophy of the Kings, directing efforts towards peace builds communities, helps those most impacted by poverty, and creates avenues for cultivating understanding between people. “We cannot afford to separate peace from freedom and justice, we must create a new emphasis on peace with freedom and justice,” these words from Coretta Scott King underscore how important peacebuilding is in ensuring equity and prosperity for all. While we are remembering Dr. King this holiday, we must also remember Coretta Scott King, a promoter for human rights, the amplification of women’s voice, and world peace.

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