Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the world continues to search for peace and equal rights, but over the course of his life, King helped lead the charge. Always by his side, either physically or in spirit, was his devoted wife, Coretta Scott King.
Before his assassination in April 1968, Martin and Coretta settled in Montgomery, Alabama, and had four children together—two girls and two boys. They also began to build what is now a well-documented legacy of using nonviolence to effect legislative change for disenfranchised Americans across a range of backgrounds. The foundation of that legacy rests in a special bond that began in 1952.
Falling in Love with a Future Leader
Martin and Coretta’s love story began when mutual friend Mary Powell played matchmaker, sliding Martin the phone number of then Coretta Scott. Martin was working on his PhD at Boston University’s School of Theology and Coretta was studying voice in the same city at the New England Conservatory of Music. During their very first phone call, Martin asked if he could meet her in person. Despite the image of a Southern Baptist preacher (black-suited and boring) that came to her Methodist mind, she suggested he pick her up for lunch.
“I wouldn’t say exactly love at first sight,” she said during a 1961 interview, “but we liked each other a great deal and we seemed to have a great deal in common.”
In her posthumously published book My Life, My Love, My Legacy, Coretta wrote that when Martin pulled up in his green Chevy that cold Thursday in January, “my first thoughts reaffirmed what I had anticipated: He was too short and he didn’t look that impressive.” On top of that, he wasn’t sporting his normal mustache (he’d shaved it during his fraternity pledge process), so he looked quite young.
Not long into their date, though, Coretta’s view of him changed completely. “I felt he was a man of substance, not like I had envisioned,” she wrote. “In fact, the longer we talked, the taller he grew in stature and the more mature he became in my eyes.”
The feeling was mutual. As he was driving her home, Martin turned to Coretta and told her, “You have everything I have ever wanted in a wife. There are only four things and you have them all.” What were those things? Character, intelligence, personality, and beauty. Coretta was both taken aback and flattered by his candor—it seemed he was in love at first sight, but he was also a man on a mission.
That Saturday, he took her to a party. As nearly every other woman in the place swooned over Martin, Coretta found herself even more impressed by him. “For someone only five foot seven and twenty-two years old, his personality was such that all the girls seemed to look up to him,” she wrote. “Here he was, one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, and he had taken me to the party as his girlfriend.” As he brought up marriage again that night, she realized she had to decide if she would take him as seriously as he was taking her.
As they settled into their courtship, Coretta started regretting her initial assessment of Martin. “There was no question he was compassionate, held deep moral convictions, and sincerely wanted to change the conditions of the less fortunate,” she wrote.
Even as educated and talented as Coretta was, she was nervous to meet her boyfriend’s parents the summer after they met. At the end of her days-long visit to Martin’s childhood home, Coretta left Atlanta uncertain of where she stood with his family.
The following November, when they were both back at school, Martin asked Coretta to come by every day during his parents' visit to Boston. One afternoon, Martin’s father—affectionately called Daddy King—droned on and on about the beautiful women Martin had dated in Atlanta. Though she stood up for herself, insisting, “I have something to offer too,” Daddy King continued talking about Martin’s other prospects.
Just when Coretta thought Martin wouldn’t say anything, he stood from the table, went to the other room, and told his mother, Mama King, “Coretta is going to be my wife.” At dinner two days later, Daddy King affirmed it: “You two are courting real hard. It is best that you get married.”
When Martin went home for Christmas 1952, he and his parents solidified the plans: The pair would announce their engagement around Easter in the Atlanta Daily World, the city's only black newspaper at the time. They would then marry in June after school was finished for the summer.
On June 18, 1953, 16 months after they met, Coretta and Martin were married by Daddy King on the lawn of Coretta’s parent’s home in Marion, Alabama. Coretta wore a waltz-length gown with peep-toe sandals, and stood with her sister, Edythe, by her side. Martin, in a white jacket and black pants, had selected his older brother, A.D., as best man, and his niece, Alveda, as flower girl.
Throughout their courtship, Coretta had been uncertain about committing to marriage so soon because of her independence and plans to continue her career as a performer. Although she’d switched her major from performing arts to music education once she was engaged (it would allow her to teach in case she and Martin needed additional income), she maintained a level of autonomy that was unconventional for the times. This was on full display at her wedding in the form of a few edits to her vows.
“I had made up my mind that I wanted the traditional language about ‘obeying’ and submitting to my husband deleted from our marriage vows,” Coretta wrote. “The language made me feel too much like an indentured servant.” Daddy King and Martin surprised her by not objecting to this choice.
Their wedding night was somewhat unconventional as well—it was spent in the home of a family friend, who was an undertaker that worked out of his house. This was not by choice; the South had no hotel accommodations for black people in those times. Coretta recalled Martin making a joke of this throughout their marriage: “Honey, do you remember we spent our honeymoon at a funeral parlor?”
Raising a Family, Leading a Movement
Martin and Coretta’s marriage sparked a major shift in both their lives—she was now inextricably connected to his plans to effect change for African Americans nationwide.
"I came to the realization that we had been thrust into the forefront of a movement to liberate oppressed people,” she is quoted as saying, “and this movement had worldwide implications. I felt blessed to have been called to be a part of such a noble and historic cause."
Their nearly 15-year marriage existed against the backdrop of the most active—and, at times, most brutal—years of the Civil Rights Movement.
Their first child, Yolanda, was born just two and a half weeks before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began on December 5, 1955. She was still an infant on the night of January 30, when a bomb was thrown and detonated in front of their home in Montgomery.
Martin Luther King III was born five weeks after the Little Rock Central High School integration, and six weeks after President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
The University of Georgia integrated the same month Dexter Scott King, their third child, was born in 1961. The Freedom Rides kicked off in May of that year. The youngest of their four children, Bernice, was 15 days old when her father was jailed in Birmingham, sparking the now famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Bernice was just shy of six months old when a bomb went off in the stairwell of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church there, killing four girls attending Sunday School.
The family's experiences of racially-charged violence would hit even closer to home shortly after. On April 4, 1968, Coretta and Martin’s love story came to a tragic halt when he was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis. Coretta and their children continued his legacy of activism, civil rights reform, and social justice—work that continues today.
“All of us have felt that he gave his life in such a meaningful way that what he lived for, and what he gave his life for, will bring about some of the changes that are necessary,” Coretta told CBS News during the family’s first Christmas without Martin.
“I think that if we are looking for another Martin Luther King, we won’t find him because he comes once in a century, or maybe once in a thousand years," she said. "But there are many other persons now who will come forth, I believe, and assume leadership that they never assumed before because they feel that there is this need.”