Coretta Scott King

Excerpts from the National Visionary Leadership Project - Sept. 5, 2002

Coretta Scott King
September 05, 2002
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These excerpts are from an interview with Coretta Scott King conducted by Renee Poussaint as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. More information can be found at

The Nobel Peace Prize

KING: I think I would have to say that receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, which was world recognition for the work that we had accomplished and yet we had so far to go. It was '64, and the Civil Rights Act didn't get passed until '64, and we know, we still hadn't achieved so much of what, you know, what the Peace Prize was for. And then, it was a commission to work for greater, you know, peace in the world. But nevertheless, you had the sense that all of the struggles that we'd gone through –this is recognition, and with a humble spirit, this is recognition for those sacrifices, for the fact that we didn't know sometimes whether we were going to survive. And so that was a great moment of fulfillment, of being there and seeing that prize given, hoping that our task would be much easier as we came back. But of course, that was not the case.


My Childhood as a Tomboy/Growing into a Lady

POUSSAINT: What did you do for fun? Did you….

KING: Well, we had our own games that we made up. You know, in the country you have a lot of space and you have trees, and we would we would create our own swings out of trees. We put a tire – from a car or truck – and put a rope through it and hang on a tree, and we'd swing. We'd climb trees. We would…you know, the usual games that children play – Little Sally Walker, Hide and Seek – all those kinds of things. We had fun, you know, when we were playing outdoors and at home. But there weren't a lot of things to do like entertaining us the way they are. I think that we were much better off when we created our own games rather than stuff that you buy from the store and it's already…you don't have to think about what it is, you just kind of figure out how to do it because they got the directions and all. But we created our own, and it was a lot of fun and we enjoyed….

POUSSAINT: How would you describe yourself as a young person, as a child? I mean, were you mischievous, were you…?

KING: Well, I was a…I was a tomboy, they say, you know how they…because I could climb trees, I could wrestle with boys – and I did. I had a cousin that I used to play with, and we would play, you know, like wrestling. We would play with each other and I would always, you know, I could…. I was stronger than he was. I was very strong. And one day, of course, we were playing and I had an ax, and he said, "You're not gonna cut me with that axe," and I said, "Yes, I will. Don't you come near me," and I had the axe and I accidentally cut him in the head with the axe. Of course I was frightened to death because it just…the skin was broken and there was a little blood, and his mother came and she was so upset. She said, "You're gonna go to jail. They're gonna put her in jail for life," and it frightened me to death. But, you know, we weren't intending…I mean, I wasn't intending to do it. It was just an accident. But it was things like that and…. But I was tough, and I also didn't…. If another child angered me, I would fight, real fight, real hard. And I used to fight my sister and my brother when they did anything that I didn't like. So they used to call me mean and I thought, My goodness, I don't want to be mean. But for a long time I thought that, you know, I was gonna be, you know, and of course they would say, you know, "You're going to the devil. You know, that's what's going to happen to you because you're so mean and then you're not gonna have any friends – no-one's gonna like you." So I started thinking about all of that and finally, you know, as I got to become a teenager, I began to become much more ladylike and I stopped fighting, and by the time I went away to college, you know, I was quite the young lady, you know. And so, you know, it's like we tease about the fact that when I was growing up – and my siblings especially – how I used to fight them. But then, you know, I would be the one who would become involved with a non-violent movement. [laughing]


My Singing Career

KING: My mother was talented. She used to sing, you know, in the church. There was no place else to sing, for her, when I was growing up. She used to do solos in church, and her father had a good voice, and so I think that singing came through my mother's side.


KING: And I just always enjoyed singing. I started, you know, as a young child in church. I used to do solos and in school, and I became the…like the star people that the teacher showed off with when the [unintelligible] supervisor came around, ' know, I grew up in the country and we went to this one-room school initially …

POUSSAINT: Crossroads.

KING: …a big one-room…and I would be the pupil that she would ask to sing or to recite a poem. And of course, I just accepted it as the fact that I could do it and that why she was asking me to do it. But I….

POUSSAINT: Did you have favorite songs that you liked to sing?

KING: You know [chuckling], it's been so long that I don't remember. But in those days, we sang basically church hymns. It was much later than I was introduced to, even to folk songs and to the classics, later in high school, but back then they were mostly spirituals and hymns. I probably sang a spiritual – I don't remember.

POUSSAINT: But at that stage, did you ever dream – at that young point in your life – that you might seriously entertain becoming a concert artist?

KING: I don't know if I'd, in elementary school, could I entertain the idea. It was…. I remember when I went to high school – and when I went to high school, it was in seventh grade – and I met this wonderful music teacher who really influenced me to study music. I wanted to be like her. She played the piano, she directed the chorus, she taught voice. You know, all of us had to study voice, because in order to sing in the chorus, she taught us how to read music. And she was very versatile and I just thought…. And she also introduced us to the classics. She taught music appreciation and she told us all about the great African-American musicians, singers. In particular, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor at that time. And she had recordings that she played to us so that we could hear these songs. She played symphonies, and of course she had us singing Handel's Messiah. Every Christmas, we did the Christmas portions of the Messiah and I did solos in the Messiah. And so it was just a…she was just a wonderful human being, as well, and I wanted to be like her. And that's when I think I got the notion that I think I would like to study music. Because when I heard classical music for the best time, I liked it.

I was studying music and was able to concentrate just on my singing career and my music for the first time, really, because at Antioch, I could only take a certain amount of music because they didn't offer a music major. They always said you could do a combined major – I had elementary education combined with music – but I had a lot of music to take in order to be a full-fledged music major at the Conservatory. But I was enjoying it because this where I knew I was supposed to be. I knew that I didn't accidentally end up at the Conservatory. The reason I knew that is because when I was on the way, I got word that I had the scholarship. I didn't know that I had a scholarship until I was on my way to Boston and was in New York and called the foundation – the Jessie Smith Noyes foundation – and they told me that they had sent the scholarship, [unintelligible] the scholarship that had been given to me – to my home in Alabama. And so I just knew that this was supposed to be because I'd got it at the last minute. And then once I got there and had spent the week in orientation, and I just had this great feeling of fulfillment. I'm here. I don't have to worry about all the issues of the world. I don't have to do anything but study music and I can concentrate fully on my music so I knew this is where I was supposed to be.

Well, I'm not sure that I will do a concert tour as such. When I decided to…in a sense, to put my singing on the shelf – and I was going to take it off later – in order to develop the center and build the center, I always wanted to do a recording of my Freedom Concert because I thought it would be important history. I still would like to do that. And I thought that, you know, I didn't know it would be as long before I could really find the time to do the practicing that's needed and all of that. But if you are a performer and particularly a singer, you have to rest a lot. You can't sing tired and, you know, often I don't get the amount of rest that I need. So it's not easy to get back into it unless you have some time, you know, just give to that. And there's always an important cause or need that's more important, it seems, than what you want to do. And because I care so deeply about, you know, people and the needs of our community and our world, it seems sort of selfish, you know, to think about what it is that I want to do.


Meeting Martin


Preparing to Start a Movement/The Montgomery Bus Boycott

KING: Our house was the center of activity in the beginning, because we created, I had to create an organization from, you know, just…it was a spontaneous movement. And so the organization was created and a lot of the activities – meetings and so forth – were held at our house. A lot of his conferences were certainly at the house, 'cause people start coming from all over the media to cover the story, so we had a lot of interviews scheduled there. And sometimes an interview would be scheduled and I was waiting lunch for him and he would walk in late, and of course he would say to them, "I have to have lunch. Would you like to have lunch with me?" Well, I hadn't prepared lunch for…[laughing]…for anybody extra so I had to say, "Oh, just a minute. I'll call you in a few minutes," and then try to figure out, find some more food from somewhere. So I learned pretty quickly to have a lot of food on hand, always have more than what Martin and I could eat. But anyway, I…. After the moment started, it was like, you know, you don't plan any day. It's planned for you, almost. And I learned to live with that. But Antioch had prepared me for change, you know, constant change in my life there. So I continued to adjust to it. It wasn't easy. But it was exciting! It was exciting when the people stood up, fifty thousand strong, to boycott the buses. I mean, that was so exciting 'cause this had never happened before.

POUSSAINT: And Rosa Parks was also an extraordinary woman. You got to know her during this period.

KING: Oh yes. Mrs. Parks was a very quiet and dignified person and was the appropriate person to be the, you know, the pioneer, because she was such a lady. She was a southern lady and I think one of the reasons why the bus driver didn't rough her up – she was so dignified in her carriage and she was such a lady, you know. You can't – how can you hit on Rosa Parks, you know? And so she was a non-violent in her spirit even then, because she had been to the Highlander Folk School, where, you know, they talk about non-violence, teach [unintelligible] non-violence. And so everybody, when they found out it was Mrs. Rosa Parks, you know, everyone was righteously indignant, let's say, because how can you…a very respectable lady like Rosa Parks? You put her in jail like this and treat her this way? So I think she was – again, it was the right person for the moment. And of course, Martin was asked to be the spokesperson and when he came home that evening from the first meeting that was called and told me that they had, that he had been selected to be the spokesperson, and he said, "I have 20 minutes to prepare for the most important speech in my whole life," and he was obviously nervous, you know, but he had a way of doing an outline – he did an outline quickly – and he could speak from an outline as well, so….

POUSSAINT: So it was exciting but it was also dangerous and you had to get used to that.

KING: It was dangerous and I didn't know how dangerous it was initially because when we started getting the threats then I realized, you know, it was dangerous. But I thought that many times they were empty threats. When a caller called and said to my husband, "If you don't stop your…" I don't even know what word he used, but whatever… "…in three days, be out of town in three days, we're going to bomb your house and kill your wife and baby," well…. The bomb…there was some talk about bombing, you know, supposing they bomb it, I thought, well, nobody's going to bomb the house. If they do, it's be a hit and run from the back, not on a main street. But when the bomb actually hit, I said, "Oh they are for real," you know. And we could have been hurt, we could have been killed even. So, you know, that's when I realized how dangerous it was, and that's when I also had to realize that if we continued – if I continued with my husband in the struggle – that I, too, could be killed.

POUSSAINT: How do you adjust to that? How do you….?

KING: Well, I, you know – again, I turned within and I did a lot of soul-searching and praying, because I know that if we are doing God's work and doing the right thing, that, you know, that God would protect us. I had that belief. That was my feeling. Now of course, it doesn't mean that, you know, you may not be…that you may avoid being killed. It means that you could be killed. But I…. You have an inner peace and a satisfaction if you feel that you are doing the right thing and doing what God intends for you to do. "Cause I remember after the house was bombed and I had to – because my parents were pulling me, trying to pull me away and his parents were trying to pull him away, and I knew I wasn't going anywhere but you know, I had to be polite about it – but I had to come to a peace within myself, that I am not going to go anywhere, I'm gonna be right here because this is what…this is right, what we are called to do. And then I started thinking back over the path that I had, that had lead me there from my home training, the threats from my father, and I thought [unintelligible]. My father was threatened in his early years, in my early years, and you know, it's like maybe I was subconsciously being prepared then because, you know, I was fearful for my father. And then I thought about the path to Antioch College and my preparation and then to Montgomery now, and – here I am, and all of a sudden, when Martin said, "We're going to Montgomery. That's where I want to start my ministry," and I wondered why and then I said, "Now I know why. It's an exciting movement and this is part of God's plan and this is what we are supposed to be doing. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."


Speaking out Against War

KING: Actually, as early as, you know, '62 I participated in a summit. Women Strive for Peace came into being really as a way of protesting the testing of nuclear bombs – atomic bomb, nuclear bomb – and we wanted to go to Geneva where there was a summit between the American representative and the Soviet representative to plead with them to sign a test ban treaty. And Martin encouraged me to go although he understood that up both of us were away a lot at that point and he had said, "You're going to have to stay home more because the children, you know, need you and all." And I said, "No problem," but then he said, "You need to go to this. This is important." So, you know, I went and after that I became a spokesperson for the women's organizations, and then I was invited to speak for the peace, as a peace coalition in Madison Square Garden, where Martin had been asked to speak but I didn't know he had been asked to speak when they asked me to speak, and I took the invitation to him and he said, "Oh yes, you need to do that." I was the only woman, of course, and one of the two blacks – I think Bayard Rustin was the other person. Then I did a lot of the marches and so forth. I had been in the peace marches and demonstrations throughout the '60s that were being held, and I kept saying to Martin, "I'll be glad when the time comes when you can come out on this issue." And he had been speaking out but it didn't get carried. Because Martin always had a problem, you know, with war. He finally came to a conclusion as a person who believed in non-violence that, you know, war couldn't serve a negative good, but he came to think that war creates more social problems than it solves, and that was his position. And that's my position. But anyway, the fact is that I was very pleased when Martin was finally able to take the position, and he took it because he could no longer live with himself, his conscience, being silent. He knew that there would be a price to pay and there was a terrific price. When he spoke out, he was attacked by black leadership, white leadership, and to the extent that the coffers of SCLC started drying up, and he said to me, "Coretta, you will have to make an appeal to your peace friends to make contributions to our organization." And of course I did, and we got some funds. But the organization not only suffered, but personally it was very painful for him to hear…to have some of his colleagues go to the press and criticize him. And I said to him one day, "Martin, I can't imagine you doing this to any of your colleagues. You have this kind of a problem, you need to talk directly to this person." And this person happened to be a one of the six of the leaders. And he finally got that person on the phone and he started given him the history of his, of the involvement of the Vietnam War starting in the forties and on through, and he says, "Oh, I see you do understand this," because they'd said Martin didn't know anything about foreign policy. He said, "Well you know, I didn't know anything about this but I see you understand it." So when Martin finally, he finally said to him, he said, "You know, for a long time I encouraged my wife to speak out. But I was the happiest man in the world when I came to a point where I could personally take a position against this evil war.


Keeping the Dream Alive/The Martin Luther King Center

KING: There are so many requests and demands about things that I am interested in and that I care about. When you've lived as long as I have, you've made a lot of friends and a lot of connections, and sometimes the appearances maybe have to do with someone that invited you that you care about or it may be an anniversary, maybe a birthday that's a public thing where there's funds being raised – such as the birthday for Dr. Hite, I was there and I know you were there. It was just something you didn't want to miss. But I also have quite a few speaking engagements I do over the course of the year, and just many other kinds of things that you are invited to do and causes that you support.

POUSSAINT: But when do you get to say, "I’m going to put my feet up and do what I feel like doing?"

KING: I don't know when that will happen. I don’t really think that it will happen until I get to that point where I, you know, find it almost impossible to get around. And you know, it's like, again, like my good friend and sister Dorothy Hite. There's so many things that she still wants to do and I there are things that I still want to do. I have not been able to get around to a lot of the things I really wanted to do, personally, because there's still so many demands in the struggle and I'm called upon constantly here at the King Center. So there's been no real retirement, just the fact that I'm not here on a day-to-day basis and I'm not really making the decisions and have the total responsibility. But I carry the responsibilities despite the fact that I am not here on a day-to-day basis, because you know, since I founded it and a my kids tease me and say that's my fifth child, so how can you detach yourself from your child?


Definition of Leadership

KING: Well, I think that the definition of leadership is, a person has to be of great character, has to have a purpose and that purpose has to be something that transcends one's own particular interest but would be something that would benefit the whole of humanity. And one has to be consistent in one's behavior, in whatever one does. One has to be…I've said character, which includes honesty, truthfulness and all those things. And it…I don't think a leader is always someone who is identified by the media as leader. There are leaders that are not visible, and they are making a difference and they are inspiring other people, as well. And so sometimes people mistake charisma for leadership, but I think a person who is a leader has to have a vision and has to be able to implement that vision.


Advice to Young African Americans

KING: I have seen the greatest progress made when we were not necessarily…where we were…where we had…where we were unified but not everybody thinking, you know, the same way. But we had to come together in Montgomery around a goal, around the goals of what that movement was about. And also, there has to be…. It seems to me that we have to go back to our roots and realize that we did not get here, we didn't get out of slavery, without a lot of prayer. I mean, we are a people, a spiritual people, and we go back to our spiritual roots and we follow that, and I think we've strayed from that, because we…I think in a sense we – and the civil and human rights movement, particularly the civil rights movement, the leadership – has helped to save this nation. And if we gonna fully save it, I think we're gonna have to help the nation understand what we have understood.


My Greatest Achievement

KING: My greatest achievement is the fact that I have been able to raise four intelligent – I'd say they are pretty normal – intelligent, committed young people who are making their own contributions in their own way. And I believe that if you can do that, even with one child…. Because each life influences many other lives. We don't know how many lives we have influenced in our time of living. So I'm very proud of my young people, and I don't…I'm really… I'd like to see the world saved, but if you save your own family, that's a tremendous contribution.


My Greatest Regret

KING: My greatest regret, I guess, is a simple thing, because it is something that I wish I had been able to do, and you say I may still be able to do it. Before I retired from the King Center, I had hoped that I would have established a significant endowment so that the legacy would be assured. I wasn't able to do that and that to me is a regret. It's a much greater regret. It's much harder now, and today especially.


Major Public Misperception of Me

KING: You know, do I know that? [laughing] What I know…[laughing, then serious] I don't know what the greatest one is, but I think a lot of people don't know me and they think that I'm a cold and uncaring person, and that I was just Martin's wife so that I became who I am because I'm Martin's wife. I don't know. Those are some of the things…I don't know what else. But….

POUSSAINT: I guess that's enough. I guess that's enough to be really annoying.

KING: But you know, my mother taught me to be…not to worry about what people say about you, just be what you are, you know. And I try to be my best self and be what I am and knowing what I am and be satisfied with that, and if people don't know it, maybe they'll eventually know it. You know, it doesn't bother me, so…

POUSSAINT: Keep your focus.

KING: Keep your focus.