Photo credit: [Coretta Scott King speaking to Dan Brown] by Burns Library, Boston College (flickr)
The United States recently honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and all that was accomplished during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This year, King’s daughter, Bernice King, asked citizens across the nation to remember her mother as well, without whom there might not be an MLK Day to celebrate. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, lived on to make strides of her own in civil rights and social justice, until she passed away of ovarian cancer complications in early January of 2006 at the age of 78.
Coretta King was a mother of four, speaker, and activist alongside her husband as they both worked towards bringing inequality in the United States to an end. Though their work continues today, their achievements allow us to enjoy the freedoms that we all enjoy today, and once a year, we take a moment to remember Martin Luther King Jr. for the role that he had to play in bringing about that change.
Yet Coretta King had an equal hand in moving the nation forward, especially in the years following her husband’s assassination. It was she who founded a 23-acre national historic park, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and made her husband’s birthplace a national monument. Additionally, it was she who strove for over twenty years to have her husband’s birthday registered as a national holiday. Indeed, without her efforts, we would most likely not celebrate MLK Day as a national holiday.
As we continue to work for the ideals set forth by Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, we remember them both. Coretta Scott King we also remember for her final battle with cancer, which we also work towards bringing an end to. As with so many of the problems facing this world, ovarian cancer is a problem without an immediate solution, but as we continue to make steps in a positive direction, we hope for a day when there will be a cure.
Life and legacy
Coretta Scott King was born in Marion, Alabama, where she was raised. She earned her first major accolade in 1945, when she graduated valedictorian of her high school. She moved to Boston to study singing at the New England Conservatory of Music, and it was there that she met her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr., in the early 50s. The two were married in 1953, and moved back to Alabama, to Montgomery, where they had four children.
Scott King sums up her husband’s legacy best, by writing that we honor “the courage of a man who endured harassment, threats and beatings, and even bombings… who went to jail 29 times to achieve freedom for others, and who knew he would pay the ultimate price for his leadership, but kept on marching and protesting and organizing anyway.” Standing alongside King during those trials was Scott King herself, who also endured the unimaginable as wife and mother to King’s children.
According to Coretta, King knew that he would pay the ultimate price well before it happened. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, King told her: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” King’s premonition came to pass in 1968, an event that devastated Scott King and their entire family. To continue her husband’s work and legacy, Scott King dedicated her life to the struggle for racial equality, extending King’s work to include women’s rights, opposition to apartheid, and LGBT rights.
Along the way, Scott King became herself a widely celebrated historical figure. She made history on numerous occasions, becoming the first woman ever to give Harvard University’s annual Class Day speech, and the first woman ever to speak at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She became a leader of the Women’s Movement, founded several dozen social organizations dedicated to the advancement of human rights, and received over 60 honorary doctorates over the course of her lifetime.
As she grew in political influence and authority, Scott King found herself taking an active hand in the developing field of LGBTQ rights, and capable of exerting her influence for the good of the nation. In 1986, Scott King wrote a letter to Congress condemning their nominee for federal judgeship—Jeff Sessions—who currently serves as Attorney General under the Trump administration.
Her letter convinced Congress to drop Session’s nomination in 1986, and returned in recent history in 2017 when Sen. Elizabeth Warren began to read it out loud on the Senate floor during Session’s nomination hearing. This event made national news over ten years after she passed away, a true testament to the strength and power of her legacy. Even today, in light of the Time’s Up movement, we are able to see the influence that Scott King exerted over a nation warring against inequity. She will be remembered as the nation continues to pave the way for equality and the freedoms of all peoples.
Battle with ovarian cancer
Scott King suffered a major stroke and minor heart attack in August of 2005, just a few months after she had been diagnosed with an irregular heart rhythm. The stroke paralyzed the right side of Scott King’s body, but she fought to partially regain the ability to move. She attempted to keep her schedule, but was forced to cancel many of her engagements, making one final appearance at a dinner in recognition of her husband’s legacy.
It was during tests for blood clots due to stroke that Scott King discovered that she had stage-three ovarian cancer. Though disheartening, Scott King faced the cancer head on, believing until the end that she would make a full recovery. This is in spite of the panel of doctors advising her that the cancer was terminal, and that there was no hope for recovery.
Scott King chose to pursue homeopathic treatments to fight the cancer, a holistic and natural approach form of alternative medicine. After gathering information about successful holistic medical centers, the King family travelled to Playa de Rosarito in Mexico, approximately 15 miles south of San Diego. The medical center, Hospital Santa Monica, came highly recommended and was advertised to be a place of healing for cancer patients who traditional therapies had failed.
Hospital Santa Monica was owned by a controversial figure named Kurt W. Donsbach, who the family did not know was guilty of several felonies committed in the United States. He was not licensed to practice medicine, and the family had nothing to go off of except that the reputation of the clinic was exceptional. When they learned of Donsbach’s felonies and guilty pleas, they were shocked. Hospital Santa Monica was closed down a week after Scott King’s death.
Scott King arrived at the hospital on the 26th of January, and passed away four days later. Though the cause of death was not confirmed, it is believed to have been due to complications caused by the cancer, which had spread to the rest of her body. Bernice, the youngest daughter of the four King children, was with Scott King when she passed away. No treatments had been administered; Scott King had rejected them all.
Though she is gone, Scott King’s life and legacy carry on alongside her husband’s. This year, the King Center for Nonviolent Change celebrates the 50th anniversary of King’s death with the MLK50 Forward movement, a commemoration of his legacy challenging participants to 50 weeks of 50 achievable actions in the spirit of King’s nonviolent, peaceful teachings. Coretta Scott King’s legacy carries on through the spirit of MLK50 Forward as well. When we remember how far this country has come, and how far we have to go, let us also remember Scott King’s legacy, and work towards bettering humankind with our actions and ideals.