Coretta Scott King: From Singer to Architect of the King Legacy
Coretta Scott King was a trailblazer in her own right before she even met her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Born in 1927 in the small rural town of Heiberger, Alabama, she grew up listening to her mother sing in church—the only place available to her to sing at the time in the highly segregated Deep South. Soon enough, King also began singing solos in church and at her one-room schoolhouse.
"I became the star pupil that the teacher showed off with when the dean supervisor came around," she recalled in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. In high school, a beloved music teacher named Miss Olive J. Williams introduced her to classical music and played recordings of influential Black artists such as Marion Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Dorothy Maynor. This introduction inspired King to study music. She took voice lessons with Miss Williams, who also led the school choir and gave the aspiring soprano solos in the school's annual performance of Handel's Messiah. She also learned to play the piano, trumpet, and violin and even directed her church choir at the age of 15.
After graduating first in her class, King earned a full scholarship to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. There, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music and Education, intending to become a music teacher like Miss Williams. But one of her instructors, Walter Anderson, recognized her potential to do more and encouraged her to apply to the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston. This decision to turn east was also spurred by the bigotry she encountered in Ohio, where King was not allowed to teach in white classrooms.
She earned another full scholarship to attend NEC—one of the most selective music schools in the country—but it only covered her tuition. With only $15 in her pocket when she arrived, she found work as a maid at a house in Beacon Hill, which gave her room and board.
Despite the financial hardship, King knew she was on the right path because she was finally able to devote herself to studying music, her first love. “I don’t have to worry about the issues of the world. I don’t have to do anything but study music,” she recalled. “I knew this is where I was supposed to be.”
She entered NEC in the fall of 1951 as a voice major. In addition to studying voice with the renowned Swedish–American soprano Marie Sundelius, she took classes in French, Italian, piano, violin, music history, conducting, harmony, and more. She graduated on June 15, 1954, with a Bachelor of Music in Music Education.
While at NEC, she met her future husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., who was pursuing a doctorate in theology at Boston University. At first, she was resistant to the relationship because she thought her ultimate calling was to pursue a singing career, not to be a preacher's wife. But they soon fell in love and married in June 1953.
After graduation, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Mrs. King continued to perform regularly in concerts across the South early on in their marriage and between giving birth to their four children. However, she realized she could not fully devote herself to a singing career while raising four children and supporting her husband and the cause. She explained in her National Visionary Leadership Project interview, “There’s always an important cause, a need, that’s more important, it seems, than what you want to do. And because I care so deeply about people and the needs of our community and our world, it seems sort of selfish to think about what it is that I want to do.”
However, she did not completely turn away from music. Instead, her musical background informed her work as an advocate for racial justice as she kept music at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. For instance, on December 5, 1956, she held a benefit concert at Manhattan Center in New York City to raise money for the Montgomery Improvement Association. The concert, titled "Salute to Montgomery," was held on the one-year anniversary of the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. King sang classical pieces, spirituals, and freedom songs and told the story of Montgomery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the long history of oppression suffered by various groups throughout history. She performed to a packed house alongside superstar musicians Harry Belafonte and Duke Ellington. The concert was a success, raising $2,000 for the cause.
The success of "Salute to Montgomery" helped her realize she could use her musical talents as a form of nonviolent activism. She later devised her own concert series as a fundraising effort for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Dr. King was president. She came up with the format of the Freedom Concert herself, combining poetry, dramatic storytelling, and music to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement. On November 15, 1964, she mounted the first Freedom Concert at Town Hall in New York City. The concert was such a success that she went on to give more than thirty Freedom Concerts across the country over the course of the next three years. The proceeds from these concerts were critical to the movement, allowing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to hire staff, pay travel expenses, and cover protestors' legal fees.
After her husband's death, Mrs. King stepped up as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968, she established the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and served as its president until 1994. For years, she lobbied to have Dr. King's birthday declared a national holiday, which finally became a reality in 1983. She also used her platform to speak out about other issues such as the Vietnam War, LGBTQ rights, apartheid, and women's rights.
You can read and hear more about Coretta Scott King, her musical background, and time spent in Boston in a story by Phillip Martin for Morning Edition here. Sadly, there is no extant footage of King's Freedom Concerts, but here's a snippet of her poignant rendition of "A Balm in Gilead," which she sang at the funeral of the four Black girls who were murdered in the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.