An introduction to Coretta Scott King’s life, and how the Coretta Scott King Award continues her legacy.
Every year in America, we take part in Black History Month. A spotlight is shown nationwide on the contributions of black Americans, as well as the historical and modern struggles faced by people of color in our country. We may read books by Maya Angelou, watch speeches given by Martin Luther King Jr., or engage in discussions about race in America. Hopefully all of the above! There is much to learn.
“But we’re not in Black History Month anymore…why is this important to talk about right now?”
Good question. Short answer: black history deserves more.
Countless figures throughout American history have been overlooked, silenced, or simply never accounted for because of the color of their skin. Because of this, it is important to not only carve out space to celebrate their accomplishments and remember their struggles, but also be equitable in giving time and energy every day to these issues of representation and effort. For every article about a white person who changed history, there are countless stories of how someone who isn’t white changed history, and made the world a better or more interesting place.
Luckily, there are many black Americans who refused to be ignored. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was arguably the loudest, most eloquent Civil Rights activist in history, but his wife, Coretta Scott King, was an indomitable force in the fight for equal rights.
I didn’t know that a week ago, and I bet a lot of people don’t know that, either. Here in Youth Services we had a jam-packed Black History Month display, and every day I would pass these books, drinking in the gorgeous cover illustrations and engaging titles. Quite a few of the books we pulled for the display are recipients of the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award.
So, what was Coretta’s life like? How did she fight injustice, and what purpose does the CSK Award serve?
Being a reader (and working in a library!) I of course decided to check out a biography about Coretta. It is an illustrated biography in the series Women Who Broke the Rules, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The title is Coretta Scott King, I Kept on Marching, words by Kathleen Krull, pictures by Laura Freeman. After reading this easy to understand children’s book on Coretta, I feel my understanding and knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement has doubled. What a life! Let us start at the beginning. As with any hero, Coretta’s origins defined her journey.
Coretta Scott King was born on April 27th, 1927 near Marion, Alabama, and she got her name from a grandmother named Cora, and an aunt named Etta. Growing up on a farm, she developed a strong work ethic, and from the age of six, Coretta would help out with the animals and crops, earning money for school supplies. From a young age, she had a love for music and learning.
In high school, Coretta studied music and at the age of fifteen became her church’s pianist and choir director. She graduated top of her class. At the time, segregation was still legal in the U.S. and black kids weren’t given the same resources as white kids. Nonetheless, Coretta’s family constantly pushed her towards education. Krull quotes Coretta’s mom as telling her, “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.”
Her father was something of a feminist as well, telling his daughters they could do anything a man could do, and that they should pursue an education. Coretta took this advice, following her older sister’s footsteps and attending Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Coretta was one of only three black people in her graduating class. She studied music and education at Antioch, specifically using music in the classroom to teach!
Unfortunately, even in the North, the racist “Rules” still applied, and Coretta hit a roadblock in her second year of required student teaching. She applied to teach at the local public school instead of the integrated college school she had taught at the previous year. Her application was rejected on the grounds that she would be the only black teacher. Outraged, Coretta went to Antioch College’s president, but he wouldn’t help her, so she ended up completing her student teaching at the college’s school. This experience, as well as a lifetime of racism, led her to get involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) after college.
Racism couldn’t break Coretta. She was stronger than the hate she came up against, and after Antioch, she decided to focus on her musical aspirations, attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. This is where she met Martin, and they started dating. Did you know Martin was a really good dancer? It was one of Coretta’s favorite things about him!
They were married in 1953, and it’s worth mentioning that Coretta had the word “obey” removed from her vows, an uncommon request for the time. After earning a degree in voice and violin, Coretta moved to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin. Shortly after arriving, they started making a family, and Coretta juggled being a mom with organizing her new church’s music activities as well as helping Martin fight for equality.
In 1955 it was Coretta who took the call from Rosa Parks, and she was a key organizer in the boycott of the Montgomery city buses. Over a year later, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the separation of whites and blacks on buses was unconstitutional. Krull cites this ruling as the “birth of the Civil Rights Movement”.
After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Kings experienced a lot more hate from people who thought what they were doing was wrong. Martin was arrested and detained many times, but Coretta was tireless in calling officials in positions of power, and using her connections to rescue Martin. Krull quotes him talking about Coretta’s perseverance, “My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle…In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope.”
Coretta was never two-dimensional either, her gaze took in the injustices of the world all at once. The 1963 March on Washington was a pivotal point in the Civil Rights Movement, but Coretta was vocal in her disappointment that no women were allowed to speak. It is well known that the FBI monitored Martin’s activities, even tapping their phones (a rarity in the 1960’s, although we would not be surprised at this today). However, it wasn’t just Martin they were scared of. Coretta got on the FBI’s radar because of her opposition to the Vietnam War. Peace was, in all its forms, paramount to Coretta’s fight for justice. She was against the death penalty, for gun control, and a supporter of gay marriage and universal healthcare.
Coretta’s “Freedom Concerts” are famously successful fundraising events. She would take the stage with other amazing singers and entertainers and wow the crowds with her gospel truths. At every concert, she would end with a stirring rendition of “We Shall Overcome”.
After Martin’s death in 1968, nobody expected Coretta to continue to march or keep up her husband’s dedication to activism. At this point, you probably aren’t surprised to learn that they were dead wrong. Before he was even buried, Coretta took to the streets and fulfilled Martin’s commitment to lead a march in Memphis in support of black garbage workers. Her three eldest children walked at her side. Strength had become synonymous with the family King.
Krull tells us that Coretta spoke with Martin’s words at first, and then her own. Within months of Martin’s death, Coretta founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, later known as the King Center. She lobbied tirelessly to get Martin’s birthday established as a national holiday. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the bill to make it so.
Coretta received honorary degrees from over 60 colleges and universities. Krull reports that one of Coretta’s proudest moments was when she received an award from Antioch College, calling her “one of the most influential women leaders in the world.” I would argue that we could remove the word “women” from that statement.
Within the world of children’s books, the Coretta Scott King Award is an important piece of Coretta’s legacy. The ALA founded this award to recognize outstanding American black authors and illustrators of children’s literature. On the award’s page, the ALA says:
“Designed to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards annually recognize outstanding books for young adults and children by African American authors and illustrators that reflect the African American experience. Further, the Award encourages the artistic expression of the black experience via literature and the graphic arts in biographical, social, and historical treatments by African American authors and illustrators.” (ALA, 2017)
The ALA goes on to define the criteria for selection, and I want to highlight one parameter specifically:
“Particular attention will be paid to titles which seek to motivate readers to develop their own attitudes and behaviors as well as comprehend their personal duty and responsibility as citizens in a pluralistic society.” (ALA, 2017)
Looking at Coretta’s life and work, this statement speaks to me about what she valued most: dedication to your values, the development of social awareness, and then putting yourself in the fight for equality and peace. Translate your passion for equality and awareness into concrete activist work and educational efforts.
Coretta Scott King was a shaper of history. She stood in the company of powerful men and made her voice heard. Not only did she fight for equal rights, she sang it out as loud as she could. Coretta’s support, intellect, and soulful dedication to equality didn’t just bolster Martin in his fight for equality. They were partners. The saying “Behind every great man in history, there was a woman” never applied to this dynamic duo, because Coretta never stood behind anyone. Hand in hand, they led the fight, and hand over heart, Coretta carried on after her husband was killed.
That’s Black History.
Are you interested in checking out some Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award winners and honorable books? Well you totally should! Immediately! Just browsing our collection in Youth Services, look for this decal on the front of the book:
The 2017 CSK Illustrator Award was given to Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. Steptoe also wrote the book. The 2017 CSK Writer Award was bestowed upon the third volume of John Lewis’ graphic memoir March, which was illustrated by Nate Powell. To see the honored books for the 2017 CSK Awards, please come by the Youth Services desk, where we have a Book Awards binder.
Andrew Greenlaw-Houldsworth is a Youth Services Library Assistant. He enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading diverse books, especially fantasy, biographies, and comics. His adorable rascal of a cat named Simon enjoys naps and food. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.