The legacy of Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) has begun to engage the interest of historians who seek to place her long and productive life in its proper historical context. The woman whom some saw as aloof and impenetrable was clearly more complex than many assumed. To those closest to her, Coretta Scott King was intelligent, gracious, and committed. Anyone who had seen her in person would have agreed that she was physically beautiful, striking in her poise and quiet demeanor. To be sure, Coretta Scott King carried a tremendous load, especially in more recent years as she came under greater scrutiny and attack from those who felt that the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she founded, had lost its sense of direction. The issues involving the King estate, including the disposition of Dr. King's personal papers, would further complicate matters.
For historians of African American women's history, Coretta Scott King's life seems representative, yet truly exceptional. On the one hand, she resembled her 19th--and early 20th-century foremothers who dedicated themselves to social uplift. Their "politics of respectability" stemmed from historical experiences under segregation that left them guardedly cautious and self-protective. (1) Particularly in public life, African American women veiled themselves from possible verbal and physical assault, making it difficult to penetrate their innermost and true selves. On the other hand, Coretta Scott King led an extraordinary public life that would set her apart from most black women. She was an historical actor in her own right and an eyewitness to some of the major events of the 20th century. The intent of this essay is to examine three phases in the life of Coretta Scott King in order to begin to understand better who she was and her role in the larger struggle for human rights.
COMING OF AGE IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH, 1927-1945
Coretta Scott King was born in Heiberger, Alabama, on 27 April 1927, the third child of Bernice McMurray and Obadiah Scott. She was named in memory of her grandmother, Cora, whom she never met, but whose tenacious spirit and "unusual strength and drive" sustained the family in hard times. (2) The Scotts were industrious and economically self-sufficient. For a time, Obadiah Scott owned a chicken farm and made ends meet by hauling lumber. Eventually, Scott purchased a sawmill and, in 1946, opened a grocery store on his own property. Coretta Scott followed in the footsteps of her mother Bernice as a seamstress and homemaker devoted to the family.
From the Reconstruction era, the South was a world segregated by law and custom restricting African Americans and whites to separate and unequal public spheres. Public facilities were separated by race, and signs reading "white" and "colored" were painful reminders to African Americans of their second-class status. A culture of violence reinforced the physical separation of the races and often resulted in lynchings and other forms of mob violence. By the early 20th century African Americans were politically disfranchised, physically vulnerable, and bereft of basic civil rights and legal protections. (3) Coretta Scott King came of age in the Jim Crow era. Her father was one of the first African American men to own a truck in rural Perry County, Alabama. This became the cause of resentment among local whites whose life-threatening assaults on Obadiah Scott were aimed to break his spirit. Coretta Scott recalled, "Many times during these years when [Daddy] left home to go into the deep woods to haul lumber, he'd say to Mother, 'I may not get back.'" (4)
In the midst of Jim Crow segregation, many African Americans created meaningful lives by developing institutions within their own communities, and black churches, schools, businesses, and other institutions flourished. The Scotts were pillars of their rural black community dating back to several generations of independent landowners. Coretta Scott King recalled, "This factor, perhaps more than anything else, helped to instill in us racial pride, self-respect and dignity which inevitably gave us the proper self-image." (5) Coretta's paternal grandfather Jeff Scott, born in 1873, owned three hundred acres of land and was a tireless and dedicated church worker. He assisted the minister at the Mount Tabor African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, chaired the Trustee Board, and presided over the Rising Star Burial Society. Like his father, Obadiah Scott was an admirably hardworking man who enjoyed immense respect among his peers. Bernice Scott combined homemaking and childrearing with service to the church as a deaconess, stewardess, and pianist. The Scotts embraced the values of faith, hard work, service, leadership, and integrity and passed these along to their three children, Edythe, Coretta, and Obie Leonard (their first child, Eunice, died at the age of 4). Everybody made a contribution in the Scott family and Coretta was no exception; she rose early each day to feed the hogs and chickens and milk the cows. At the age of 10, she worked as a cotton picker earning from four to five dollars a season outside the home.
Next to church and family, education was highly valued among the Scotts and other African Americans, who after emancipation, equated freedom with literacy. With very little formal education themselves, the parents instilled a strong desire to learn among their children. Mrs. Scott once remarked, "My children are going to college, even if it means I only have but one dress to put on." (6) The Scott home contained several books along with an old Victrola and a rare, …