Accessibility links

Breaking News

What It Takes - Coretta Scott King

What It Takes - Coretta Scott King
What It Takes - Coretta Scott King
What It Takes - Coretta Scott King
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:28:36 0:00

00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: Welcome to What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I'm Alice Winkler, and just a quick reminder: our Twitter handle is @WhatItTakesNow. When Coretta Scott was growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Marion, Alabama, she dreamed of a career in music. She had no intention of marrying a minister. She had no inkling that she, alongside her husband, would become one of the country’s leading figures in the movement that won civil rights for African Americans.

00:01:27 She could not have imagined she’d be an icon worldwide of dignity, of righteousness, and of hope. These were all far beyond the grasp of a young black girl growing up in Alabama during the 1930s and '40s.

00:01:44 CORETTA SCOTT KING: I know something about what it is like to be a young person struggling to succeed against adversity. As an African American child growing up in the segregated South, I was told, one way or another, almost every day of my life that I wasn't as good as a white child. When I went to the movies with other black children, we had to sit in the balcony while the white kids got to sit in the better seats below.

00:02:15 We had to walk to school while the white children rode in school buses paid for by our parents' taxes. Such messages, saying we were inferior, were a daily part of our lives. But I was blessed with parents who taught me not to let anyone make me feel like I wasn't good enough, and as my mother told me, "You are just as good as anyone else. You get an education and try to be somebody. Then you won't have to be kicked around by anybody, and you won't have to depend on anyone for your livelihood, not even a man."

00:03:02 ALICE WINKLER: Coretta Scott King was speaking here to an Academy of Achievement gathering in 1999. It was at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She stood at the pulpit, that same pulpit where her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., stood 31 years before to deliver what would be the last Sunday sermon of his life. Coretta told her audience on that day she spoke that she was often asked how she managed to be so involved in the civil rights struggle while raising four children.

00:03:37 CORETTA SCOTT KING: I can only reply that when God calls you to a great task, he provides you with the strength to accomplish what he has called you to do. Faith and prayer, family and friends were always available when I needed them, and of course, Martin and I always were there for each other. I learned that when you are willing to make sacrifices for a great cause, you will never be alone because you will have divine companionship and the support of good people.

00:04:13 This same faith and cosmic companionship sustained me after my husband was assassinated and gave me the strength to make my contribution to carrying forward his unfinished work.

00:04:27 ALICE WINKLER: Coretta Scott King spoke many times to the Academy of Achievement, and she sat for two interviews, in 2003 and 2004, but before I play another of those excerpts, I want to play you a little of the eulogy for Mrs. King that her dear friend, Maya Angelou, a fellow Academy member, delivered in 2006. It beautifully captures what Coretta Scott King meant to America.

00:04:55 MAYA ANGELOU: In the midst of national tumult, in the medium of international violent uproar, Coretta Scott King’s face remained a study in serenity. In times of interior violent storms, she sat, her hands resting in her lap calmly, like good children sleeping. Her passion was never spent in public display.

00:05:30 She offered her industry and her energies to action toward righting ancient and current wrongs in this world. She believed religiously in nonviolent protest. She believed it could heal a nation mired in a history of slavery and all its excesses.

00:05:58 She believed nonviolent protest, religiously, could lift up a nation rife with racial prejudices and racial bias. She was a quintessential African American woman, born in the small-town repressive South, born of flesh and destined to become iron, born...

00:06:30 Born a cornflower and destined to become a steel magnolia.

00:06:36 ALICE WINKLER: When Coretta Scott King was still a budding steel magnolia, she walked five miles to school every day to the one-room schoolhouse for black children, while the white children drove past on a bus to their school, which was closer. But her parents were determined she get the best education possible under the circumstances. They sent her to a private high school where she graduated valedictorian.

00:07:03 CORETTA SCOTT KING: I had wonderful parents who inspired me to be the best person that I could be. My mother always told me that I was going to go to college, even if she didn't have but one dress to put on, and so I grew up knowing that I was going to somehow find a way out of the situation I grew up in.

00:07:22 ALICE WINKLER: Her way out, she thought at the time, was going to be through music.

00:07:27 CORETTA SCOTT KING: I always wanted to study music. That was my first love. In high school, I had a teacher who influenced me greatly, Miss Olive J. Williams, and she was versatile in music, and I wanted to be like her. She exposed me to the world of classical music. Before then, I had never heard classical music. She exposed me also to the great composers of the world, as well as black performers, which I didn't know about at the time — Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Dorothy Maynor.


00:08:28 ALICE WINKLER: Her parents’ hopes and dreams came to fruition. Coretta got a partial scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio, a school with a devotion to social justice and to diversity. Coretta continued to study music there, as well as education. She also joined the campus chapter of the NAACP and the college's race relations and civil liberties committees. After she graduated, she moved to Boston to continue her studies. She was on the path to become a concert singer.

00:09:01 CORETTA SCOTT KING: So I attended the New England Conservatory on a scholarship, a scholarship to Antioch and a scholarship to the conservatory. And of course, after my first semester in Boston in 1951, I met Martin Luther King Jr. And of course, Martin Luther King Jr. was studying for his doctorate in systematic theology, and he was going to go back south and pastor a church, a Baptist church, and he was looking for a wife.

00:09:28 And I wasn't looking for a husband, but he was a wonderful human being, and he made everyone feel special, and he made me feel very special, you know, as a woman. But I still resisted his overtures, but after he persisted, I had to pray about it because I've had — my parents were religious; I was brought up in the church, and I had a strong faith.

00:09:56 I always believed that there was a purpose for my life and that I had to seek that purpose, and that if I discovered that purpose, then I believed that I would be successful in what I was doing. And I thought I had found that purpose when I decided that music was going to be my career. I studied voice the first year, and after I met Martin and prayed about whether or not I should open myself to that relationship, I had a dream.

00:10:28 And in that dream, I was made to feel that I should allow myself to be open and stop fighting the relationship, and that's what I did, and of course the rest is history.

00:10:48 ALICE WINKLER: But history can often be distorted in the telling. Coretta Scott King is sometimes portrayed in books and film as primarily the dutiful wife of the magnetic young leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but Andrew Young has some words to correct that misperception. Andrew Young was in Martin’s inner circle and went on to become a congressman, an ambassador, and the mayor of Atlanta.

00:11:13 He is also a member of the Academy of Achievement, and, in fact, we’ll be playing his amazing interview in the next episode of this podcast. Andrew Young first met the Kings in 1957, and they hit it off because it turned out that Coretta and Andrew Young’s wife, Jean, were both from the same small county in Alabama. But the two women had something else in common — their families had both withstood intensely harsh treatment at the hands of racists.

00:11:44 ANDREW YOUNG: I mean Coretta's father had three different businesses that were destroyed by white people — a trucking company, a sawmill, and a grocery store. They were all sabotaged or burned because it was a county that resented black people having — being able to progress and being hard workers, and so both Coretta and Jean were more committed, I think, to get into the struggle to do something about race than either me or Martin.

00:12:19 ALICE WINKLER: Andrew Young says Martin Luther King actually chose to move to Montgomery, Alabama, to avoid controversy, because, of all the churches that made him an offer, Dexter Avenue Baptist was the most conservative, and he needed time to write, to finish his dissertation and get his Ph.D. Of course, history refused to cooperate, as it sometimes does, because no sooner had King sent off his dissertation than a group of women decided to make a bold statement in Montgomery, protesting the severe treatment of blacks on the city’s buses.

00:12:55 They famously chose Rosa Parks for the job. When her action and arrest sparked the idea of a bus boycott, they needed someone to lead it. Twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was uncontroversial, pretty new to town with his wife, Coretta, and he had shown great potential. As Andrew Young tells it, King was in the back room of the church, copying flyers for the boycott on a mimeograph machine, when they elected him. Coretta was at home with their newborn, Yolanda.

00:13:28 CORETTA SCOTT KING: I don't think that my husband — although he said he was going to go back south and fight to change the system so that everybody could participate — although he talked about that, at that time, we never dreamed that we would have an opportunity, that we would be projected into the forefront of the struggle as we were.

00:13:57 We were just going to work from, as he said, a black Baptist church pulpit. That was the freest place, you know, in the society at that time, but we had no idea that — what God had in store for us, and I do believe it was divine intervention that we were thrust into the forefront of the struggle.

00:14:22 ALICE WINKLER: But the dangers of being in the forefront became instantly clear. During the bus boycott — this is in January of 1956 — the Kings’ house was bombed. Coretta and her baby were at home but were in a different part of the house and survived.

00:14:38 CORETTA SCOTT KING: After my house was bombed and, of course, all the threats on my husband's life — on my life, too — I realized I could have been killed as well because I was in the house when the bomb hit the front porch, with my young baby. And the callers had been calling, and they said that they were going to bomb our house — told my husband they were going to bomb his house and kill his family if he didn't leave town in three days.

00:15:07 And of course, he didn't leave town in three days, and they did bomb the house, so knowing that they meant what they said, because they actually did bomb the house, that they — it wasn't — the bomb was not strong enough to destroy the house. But the fact is that I had to deal with the fact that if I continued in the struggle, I too could be killed.

00:15:32 And that's when I started praying very seriously about my commitment and whether or not I would be able to stick with my husband to continue in the struggle. And of course, I wasn't — it wasn't that difficult. It was a struggle, but I felt really a sense of fulfillment that I hadn't felt before, that this was really what I was supposed to be doing. And it was a great blessing to have discovered this and to be doing what was God's will for your life.

00:16:12 I remember feeling very distinctly that I was married to the cause. I was married to my husband, whom I loved — I learned to love; it wasn't love at first sight. But I also became married to the cause. It was my cause.

00:16:30 ALICE WINKLER: The threats and attacks against the family continued, unrelenting, but Coretta Scott King, like her husband, was never deterred.

00:16:39 CORETTA SCOTT KING: It was the belief that we were doing the right thing, because the Supreme Court decision had been rendered in 1954, and this was in 1955, and we were all motivated by that and knowing that this meant the beginning of breaking down the system of segregation. We recognized that if the schools could desegregate, this means that other things can desegregate as well. So with Montgomery happening, it was like an intervention there, that God had planted Rosa Parks and also Martin Luther King Jr.

00:17:17 And so you had the sense that something very, very significant was happening, that we were not only struggling to free the people of the South, but oppressed people around the world. And each time there were things — for instance, the stabbing incident, where Martin was stabbed in a home — I mean it's like it made no sense, except that God was preparing us for something even bigger, and that kept you going.

00:17:53 ALICE WINKLER: Mrs. King had given up her singing career to raise her children — four of them by 1963 — but she found ways still to combine her music and her activism and her faith. You can hear her singing here with a choir in this short clip, believed to be from the funeral of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carol Denise McNair, three of the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.


00:18:24 There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul

00:18:53 ALICE WINKLER: Coretta Scott King also put her musical talents to work, staging what were called “freedom concerts.” These were performances around the country, with music and poetry and narration about the movement, to raise awareness and money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Sometimes the freedom concerts included celebrities, like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and Aretha Franklin. Mrs. King also began giving speeches at times when her husband was unavailable.

00:19:25 When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Coretta took up the mantle of the movement and dedicated the rest of her life to promoting her husband’s teachings of nonviolent activism. Just a few weeks after his death, she addressed an anti-war demonstration in New York’s Central Park, and she continued speaking in public around the world, promoting education, peace, and human rights, including those of women and gays and lesbians.

00:19:57 She also was the force behind the King Center in Atlanta, and worked to secure passage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday. In 1997, the first time Coretta Scott King spoke to the Academy of Achievement, she wanted to talk to the students gathered about Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She always felt moved by young people and knew how to inspire them to continue the work she and her husband had begun. I want to close this episode of What It Takes with part of her talk that day.

00:20:32 CORETTA SCOTT KING: Many of you have seen excerpts of the “I Have a Dream” speech. You've probably studied it in your classes, and other speeches of Martin's, but each time you hear it, I think it gives you that same special kind of feeling, the kind of America that we want to see for our children, the kind of America that we are still trying to build.

00:21:06 It's what Martin talked about in that speech, and I hope that all of you will dream big dreams, dream impossible dreams, and work throughout the rest of your lives to fulfill those dreams, because success is a lifetime's struggle and achievement.

00:21:38 And what I mean by success, I think, I'm talking about the quality of your life, not how much money you accumulate, not how many degrees you earn, not how many awards you receive, not how much you're seen on television, or whether you become the president of the United States.

00:22:05 It is the quality of your life that's important. After I was married and we had gone to Montgomery, both sets of parents, mine and Martin's, were pulling on us to come to where it was safer, either at my home in Marion, Alabama for me and my baby, or to Atlanta, where Martin's parents were.

00:22:35 And, of course, we chose to stay in Montgomery because we felt that we were part of a worldwide struggle that was connected. Any oppression anywhere in the world, we were somehow connected to it. I had that sense back in 1955, '56. A few days after the bombing, I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

00:23:10 And I remember feeling that, “Now I know why Martin chose Montgomery. Now I know why we came back south to the cradle of the Confederacy. We are supposed to be here.” It's a great feeling of satisfaction you get when you sense that you are in the right place at the right time and that we were chosen.

00:23:35 I felt chosen, as well, and I looked back on the path that I had taken: Antioch College from high school in Marion, Alabama; then to Boston, the New England Conservatory of Music; and all the time I realized I had been preparing for the leadership roles and the coworker, partner, wife, mother, civil rights/human rights activist that I was becoming.

00:24:12 And it was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. And I said, "What a privilege. What a privilege it is to be a part of a struggle that's bigger than we are, that we don't know where it's going, but we know that it's moving toward bringing about greater justice, equality, peace, freedom, for all people."

00:24:44 And so, I say to young people, you young people, as you're preparing your life and your life's career, make sure that you choose well in your profession and see it, whatever it is, as a service to improve the human condition. I believe this is possible no matter what choice you make.

00:25:17 Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered by one of his sermons, which was preached about two months before his assassination, called “The Drum Major Instinct.” He talked about how he wanted to be remembered, and very often when I'm being interviewed, the interviewer will say, "How do you want to be remembered, Mrs. King?"

00:25:45 And I’ve found it difficult to say how I want to be remembered. As I get older, I guess I have to start thinking about it. You have to think about what your legacy is going to be, but Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I'd like to be remembered as one who tried to love and serve humanity. Don't talk about the fact that I have a Ph.D. degree and all the other awards and honorary degrees that I have."

00:26:20 "Don't even talk about the fact that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That's not important. All I want you to say is that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love and serve humanity. I tried to be right on the war question. I tried to visit those who were in prison. I tried to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked."

00:26:48 Those are the things that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to be remembered by. It seems to me that the greatest contribution you can make and the greatest gift that you can give is of yourself. And when you give to others, give of yourself. And I hope that each one of you will, if you've not already started doing it — and I'm sure you have — that you will start from this moment forward to start giving something back, even in small ways.

00:27:24 And if you do that you will be fulfilled, and you will be happy. Thank you.

00:27:36 ALICE WINKLER: That's Coretta Scott King speaking in 1997. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler, and again, make sure to check in for the next episode, when we’ll hear Andrew Young’s inspiring stories from the Civil Rights Movement. Trust me, it’s an incredible conversation you will not want to miss.

00:27:58 And thanks, as always, to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.