CHEYENNE – When Coretta Scott met Martin Luther King Jr.’s father for the first time, he questioned whether Scott was truly a suitable wife for his son. As a Baptist preacher in Atlanta, King Sr. thought it was ideal for his son to marry a woman from a well-off family in the community.
King Sr. confronted Scott about her intentions in the relationship, telling her she would be better suited to find someone who also worked in music. As King Jr. stood in silence, always eager to please his father, Scott replied with confidence in her voice.
“I have something to offer, Rev. King,” Scott told him.
And throughout their lives together, Scott showed King Jr. literature that changed his perspective, stood by his side during political turmoil and took care of their family so he could play a leading role in the civil rights movement.
Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, the foremost expert on Martin Luther King Jr. and the scholar Coretta Scott King trusted to compile, organize and publish King Jr.’s papers, told stories of Scott’s life and her accomplishments Thursday night at the Cheyenne Civic Center. The event was organized by the Laramie County Library, which also coordinated and facilitated audience questions following Carson’s main presentation.
Carson said there were many women like Scott at the time – intelligent and fully capable, “who had to make the choice of whether to be the wife their husband wanted them to become, or to follow their own dream.”
Scott came from “respectable, but poor” parents in the backwoods of Alabama, working her way through college and earning grants to subsidize her studies. Occasionally, she had to borrow money from friends just to eat.
She met Martin Luther King Jr. while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, and the two had an instant connection. While King Jr. immersed himself in theological teachings, Scott was more focused on political involvement and fostering a positive change. She was involved in the local NAACP chapter, and met left-leaning leaders through her involvement.
It was “this common interest in unconventional politics” that really drew them to each other, Carson said.
But years later, during the civil rights movement, while King Jr. was sitting in jail in Birmingham for protesting, Scott wanted to be right there with him. Instead, she was at home watching the kids.
Carson said the role played by women like Scott, who deferred their choices in favor of their husbands, had an vital impact on history as it was happening.
“There wouldn’t be a King holiday without Coretta,” Carson said.
Carson said Scott truly found her own voice as an activist after King Jr.’s death. Four days after King Jr. was slain in Memphis, Tennessee, Scott took three of her children to march in support of sanitation workers in the same city. She went on to play an integral role in the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the preservation of King Jr.’s writings, speeches and documents.
In looking to learn more about Scott and King Jr.’s relationship, Carson found their letters to each other to be most valuable, especially the letters from an argument they had.
After their first date in 1952, King Jr. told Scott she embodied the four qualities he was seeking in a wife – character, intelligence, personality and beauty. But according to Carson, Scott feared “she would become simply a minister’s wife, like Martin’s mother.”
So when King Jr. asked Scott to travel to Atlanta and meet his family, Scott said no. She later elaborated that she felt things were moving too fast, but Carson also said it was one of the ways she negotiated the terms of their relationship, which she would continue to do until King Jr.’s death in 1968.
Her refusal caused an argument between the two, and it took years for Scott to finally turn over the letters from the fight to Carson. Carson joked he even considered burglary when he learned she kept the letters in a box under her bed.
The letters, Carson said, were a portrait of their relationship.
In a letter where King Jr. tells Scott that their love is stronger than the whims of anger, he switched the conversation from the argument to a book Scott had gifted him called “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy.
Carson said in the letters, King Jr. spoke with a “frankness he would never replicate in public.” The letters highlight the deep connection between the two, the philosophies they shared and the role Scott played in King Jr.’s life.
In the copy of the book she gave to King Jr., Scott wrote, “There’s still hope for the future, lest we become too impatient.”