Coretta Scott King, a Revolutionary Woman (January 2006)

When we retell the story of radical African American activism in the 20th century, we will finally embrace Coretta Scott King as the truly revolutionary figure she was.

Coretta Scott King attends a ceremony in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 23, 2003. (Allison Silberberg / Getty Images)

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This article was originally published in the Spring 2006 issue of Ms.—a few months after Coretta Scott King’s death on January 30, 2006.

While Coretta Scott King has been celebrated as a civil rights icon, her vision of “the beloved community” was bolder and more revolutionary than her husband Martin’s.

Deeply committed to racial and economic justice, as well as nonviolent social change, she was also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, trade unions, affirmative action, world peace, universal health care, gun control, nuclear disarmament, the enfranchisement of convicted felons, HIV/AIDS education/prevention/treatment and a broad range of other social issues that situated her outside the mainstream of American politics and the civil rights establishment.

Her commitment to human rights was all-encompassing and unrelenting. Scolding Congress for investing in questionable military actions over the past four years, she reminded college audiences that “in addition to the terrible loss of human life…we have spent more than 200 billion dollars on the war [in Iraq], with no end in sight.”

She believed that the U.S. would be better served if resources were expended for improved schools, college tuition support and training programs for at-risk youth. Speaking to the Antioch College graduating class of 1982, she asked, “Isn’t it strange how the leaders of nations can talk so eloquently about peace while they prepare for war? … There is no way to make peace while preparing for war.”

Her outspoken support of same-sex marriages was perhaps her most controversial recent stand, although her advocacy for gay rights began over a decade ago. During a speech at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in March 2004, King asserted, “A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay-bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”

Unlike many civil rights leaders, she saw the similarities between the struggle for Black liberation and the gay and lesbian rights movement, arguing, “We have to launch a national campaign against homophobia in the Black community.”

Rarely named or even noticed, King’s feminist values were manifest in both her personal and political lives. When she married Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953, long before the modern women’s movement and its critiques of the patriarchal institution of marriage, Coretta debunked tradition by insisting to Daddy King—her husband’s Baptist minister father who married them—that the standard promise of obeying one’s husband be omitted from their vows.

Coretta debunked tradition by insisting to Daddy King—her husband’s Baptist minister father who married them—that the standard promise of obeying one’s husband be omitted from their vows.

Although Martin wanted her to be a traditional wife and mother by staying home raising their four children, she insisted on a more genuine partnership with respect to her participation in the movement. Her steadfast belief in the importance of women’s roles in social transformation was a recurring theme in her speeches. Only two months after her husband’s assassination, she spoke during the Poor People’s Campaign at the Lincoln Memorial in June 1968, and announced that it was time for “a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war.”

Nearly a decade later, Alice Walker would interview Coretta at her home in Atlanta. Walker was curious about why Black women seemed to be antagonistic toward the women’s liberation movement. King’s response illuminates clearly her notions of feminism: “If women become irrevocably involved in social issues they will find themselves powerful as activists and as women.”

While we know that Martin didn’t address women’s rights, Coretta told Alice that they talked frequently about the importance of organizing women and that she regrets that he didn’t address women’s issues. While King did not discuss with Walker her own connection to the women’s movement, she had hosted NOW’s second convention in Atlanta and served as a commissioner on President Jimmy Carter’s International Women’s Year Commission, which was led by Bella Abzug. And on what would have been her husband’s 50th birthday, Coretta highlighted not only the ongoing struggle to make his birthday a national holiday but also the less-publicized drive to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

When the grand narrative of American feminism is rewritten, it will be a more extraordinary “herstory” when the pantheon of women warriors is expanded. Coretta Scott King will join her fallen African American sisters—Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Claudia Jones, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, June Jordan—whose collective battles against multiple forms of oppression have been as inspirational, as compelling and as transgressive as those of the more celebrated icons of the women’s movement.

When we retell the story of radical African American activism in the 20th century, we can finally embrace Coretta Scott King as the truly revolutionary figure she was.

This article originally appears in the Spring 2006 issue of MsBecome a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

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Beverly Guy-Sheftall is founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center (since 1981) and Anna Julia Cooper professor of women’s studies at Spelman College. She is also an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies where she teaches graduate courses in their doctoral program. She is the former president of the National Women’s Studies Association and serves on the Ms. Committee of Scholars. Guy-Sheftall has published a number of texts within African American and women’s studies, including the first anthology on Black women’s literature, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Guy-Sheftall is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, among them a national Kellogg fellowship; a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for dissertations in women’s studies; and Spelman’s presidential faculty award for outstanding scholarship.