As Martin Luther King Jr. Day quickly approaches, people all over the world are making plans to reflect on the incredible, global-reaching impact King left on the U.S. through his courageous efforts to increase equity and Civil Rights for African American citizens.
In the midst of all this remembrance, however, it must also be acknowledged that much of the reason the world knows of the King legacy is largely the result of the efforts of his wife, Coretta Scott-King, in the years after King was assassinated.
Even though Scott-King was a visible, voracious devotee to her husband’s civil rights efforts while he was alive, the widow worked tirelessly after his untimely death to carry out the dauntless task of upholding the legacy her husband once began.
According to the National Women’s History Museum, Scott-King not only supported the Civil Rights Movement, she also fought for the place of women in it: “Throughout her marriage, King appeared side by side with her husband fighting against injustice. She also openly criticized the movement’s exclusion of women.”
Following King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Scott-King had the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change built in Atlanta, Georgia just a stone’s throw away from the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which King and his father co-pastored.
Scott-King also spent considerable amounts of time on formatting the center’s programming to educate the public on King’s philosophies and the methodology behind his ability to break ground on so many racial injustices and civil issues. In addition, Scott-King became a trailblazer in the creation of one of the largest archives of documents from the Civil Rights Movement.
In the process, history was made as the King Center became the U.S.’s first institution built in honor of an African American leader. Situated in the Freedom Hall complex encircling King’s tomb, The King Center is today located inside of a 23-acre national historic park which includes his birth home, and which hosts more than one million visitors each year.
Scott-King served as the founding president, chairwoman, and chief executive officer of The King Center. She committed herself to not only reaching people regionally or nationally but spanning internationally to train tens of thousands of people on the legacy that is King.
Yet, undoubtedly, Scott-King’s greatest achievement was spearheading the campaign to make King’s birthday a national holiday, which is now, in some capacity, celebrated globally by millions of people and in over 100 different countries.
Alongside these great achievements on behalf of her husband’s legacy, Scott-King wrote three books, received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities, and helped found a multitude of organizations dedicated to the betterment of the African American people.
Furthermore, Scott-King has become a celebrated international Civil Rights activist in her own right.
In 1969, Scott-King was awarded the Universal Love Award, becoming the first non-Italian to hold the distinction. The same year, she published her memoirs, titled “My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.”
As a globally-celebrated heroine for social justice, Scott-King has shared space among important public figures including presidents and prime ministers and has shaken the hands of spiritual leaders such as Pope John Paul and Dalai Lama. Scott-King even stood next to Nelson Mandela as he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
Scott-King died on Jan. 30, 2006 from complications due to ovarian cancer. “A few days after her death, thousands of Atlantans stood in line in the pouring sleet to pay their respects to her at a viewing in Ebenezer Baptist Church,” a Scott-King biography from The King Center website reads.
Scott-King funeral was attended by several presidents and heads of states who expressed their sadness in losing another prominent figure in the fight for equality, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She is today interred alongside her husband in a memorial crypt in the reflecting pool of The King Center’s Freedom Hall Complex.
Scott-King is celebrated as a woman of true grace, tenacity, and resilience. Though she began just trying to continue the remarkable history her husband left behind, in the end, she created an indelible legacy of her own.