Though she’s best known for the 15 years she was married to human rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King was actually a strong advocate of women’s rights, a former executive director of Defense Logistics Agency Human Resources said during a Women’s History Month observance at McNamara Headquarters Complex March 19.
“There’s something about her that’s almost an enigma. We all think we know her or think we know something about her, but once I started to research, I found I hardly knew anything about her and her contributions,” said Juanita Smith, who left DLA in 1997.
King was born in a small town in Alabama and graduated high school as class valedictorian. Though singing was her first love, she studied elementary education at Antioch College, a nonsectarian school established in 1852. Students there were required to be actively engaged in the community and social justice, a principle that Smith said affected King throughout the rest of her life.
But when King was ready to begin student teaching, she was told she couldn’t practice in the nearby town. They told her, “You can’t do student teaching in this town because we don’t have black teachers. You’ll have to go 9 miles down the road.” She took her fight to the school president, who eventually allowed her to practice teaching on campus.
“That was the beginning of Coretta’s activism. It didn’t start after she got married; it was embedded in her all along,” Smith said.
King finished her education at Antioch, but even with great grades she was not allowed to teach. Her life took a new turn in 1948 when she was performing at a full-house concert.
“Everybody was wowed by her. She started to think that she could be somebody different,” Smith said.
She got a scholarship to Boston Conservatory, then soon met and married Martin Luther King Jr. While they were living in Montgomery, Ala., where Martin Luther was an assistant pastor, their house was bombed. Coretta’s father tried to pursue her to leave, but she said no, that she was as much a part of the civil rights movement as her husband.
When her husband was assassinated in 1968, King continued singing and held what she called “Freedom Concerts” to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And while still grief-stricken, she traveled to Charleston, S.C., to lead a strike of women hospital workers.
“Another feature that Coretta put a lot of energy in was getting the Martin Luther King holiday. It took 15 years to get the Martin Luther King holiday from the point of first being introduced to Congress to its enactment. That took a lot of courage on her part, a lot of strength,” Smith said.
A 1974 Gallup Poll voted Coretta one of the five most influential women in the world. She was also the first woman to deliver a class address at Harvard University and the first women to deliver a sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Smith, herself, helped fight for women’s equality during her time at DLA, agency Director Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek told the audience. She helped establish the first DLA Diversity Team, which created what’s now known as the DLA Culture Survey.
“She also established the DLA Women’s Focus Group, a program we still maintain to study female progression to senior-level positions in DLA. She worked to ensure women were looked at based on merit,” he said, adding that 39 percent of DLA’s current workforce is made up of women.
Smith is also the author of two books and speaks to national and international audiences about topics such as women’s issues, leadership, change management and life management.