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The wife of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King was a civil rights leader in her own right, playing a prominent role in the African American struggle for racial equality in the 1960s.
Here's a gripping portrait of a smart, remarkable woman. Growing up in Alabama, Coretta Scott King graduated valedictorian from her high school before becoming one of the first African American students at Antioch College in Ohio. It was there that she became politically active, joining the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After her marriage to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta took part in the Civil Rights Movement. Following her husband's assassination in 1968, she assumed leadership of the movement. Later in life she was an advocate for the Women's Rights Movement, LGBT rights, and she worked to end apartheid in South Africa.
About the Author
Gail Herman has written several biographies and nonfiction books, including Who Was Jackie Robinson? and What Is the World Series?
Read an Excerpt
Who Was Coretta Scott King?
It was a cool and drizzly day in early spring 1968. Coretta Scott King stepped off an airplane in Memphis, Tennessee. Days earlier, on April 4, her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., had been shot and killed downtown in the city. Coretta was now a widow at age forty-one. She was heartbroken and tired, but determined.
Martin was the leader of the civil rights movement to give black Americans the same rights as white people. He had planned to lead a protest march in Memphis. Now he was gone. But the march was still being held.
Martin would have wanted it. Coretta knew that. And she knew she had to be there, too. She’d always been by his side when he needed her. And he needed her now to carry on.
Some friends urged Coretta not to go. They feared her life would be in danger. She didn’t listen.
At the march, Coretta and three of her children linked arms at the front of the crowd. And they began to walk.
The protesters—as many as forty-two thousand by one estimate—marched for about one mile. People lined the street as they passed. No one cheered or waved or shouted. They were too sad.
At city hall, there were many speeches about Martin. Then came Coretta’s turn. She talked about his life as a husband and father. Finally, she said, “How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society? How long will it take?”
After, her oldest daughter said, “Mommy, you were real good.”
Coretta hoped her presence had given people strength. Being there gave Coretta strength, too. She felt more determined than ever to carry on the cause of civil rights. She’d always been Martin’s partner in the struggle for equality. Martin believed that he and Coretta “walked down this path together.”
That was true. Coretta Scott King had believed in peace and justice—right from the very beginning.
Chapter 1: The Scott Family
Coretta Scott was born on April 27, 1927, outside of Marion, Alabama, in the small town of Heiberger, Alabama. Sometimes the area is called the Black Belt because of its rich black soil. But in the 1800s, the term had another meaning. It referred to the black slaves who had once worked the cotton fields on large farms called plantations.
Their lives were harsh, filled with backbreaking work and cruel treatment.
Slaves were considered property. Like a horse or a piece of furniture. They had no rights. White owners could whip them, sell them, or work them to death.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, all slaves were freed. Like many others, Willis Scott stayed right where he was. In Alabama. In time, Willis managed to buy his own land. Over the years, generations of Scotts farmed those fields, working hard and raising families.
In 1920, Coretta’s father, Obadiah “Obie” Scott married Bernice McMurry.
They built a small, plain home with two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom. Soon, they had a family: Edythe, Coretta, and Obie Jr. Slavery had ended over sixty years ago. But life was still difficult for African Americans.
In Alabama, and other parts of the South, black people were segregated from white people. That means laws kept them separated.
Obie worked at a sawmill, where logs were cut into boards for building. By the time Coretta was born, he had saved enough to buy a truck. Now he could work for himself, hauling trees.
Then, in 1929, when Coretta was a toddler, the Great Depression hit. It was a time of great hardship throughout the United States. Millions of people lost jobs. And Obie lost work.
The Scott home only had a fireplace for heat and no running water or electricity. But the Scotts got by. They ate vegetables from their own garden, and had eggs from their own chickens. Everyone in the family worked hard. Coretta didn’t mind. She liked being busy. As soon as she could walk, she’d follow Grandfather Scott to the fields to help.
At around age six, Coretta started tending the family garden. By ten, she was working in the cotton fields. She felt proud of her cotton-picking skills. Strong and strong-willed, Coretta boasted she could pick cotton faster than any boy her age.
Coretta had fun, too. She was a tomboy. She loved being outdoors. Nothing scared her—not hitting wasp nests or baiting fishhooks with worms.
Indoors, music filled the Scott home. Coretta’s parents had one of the first Victrolas, an early record player. They owned books, too. Her parents read nursery rhymes and fairy tales to Coretta, Edythe, and Obie again and again.
Faith was important to the Scotts, and much of Coretta’s life centered around church. Every Sunday, men put on suits and women wore their best hats and dresses. The Scott children had to walk four miles to go to Sunday school. Grandfather Scott would open the service by singing a hymn. Coretta loved the music.
It all gave Coretta a sense of pride and history. But there was a whole world outside Heiberger. It was filled with different rules for black people and white people. In elementary school, Coretta saw that for the first time.