Coretta Scott King, The Archive, and Black Feminist Methods

Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City. Photo: Library of Congress.
Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City. Photo: Library of Congress.

For someone so prominent, learning about Coretta Scott King’s life and labors apart from those of her late husband is no easy feat. Her work to support the peace movement, the welfare rights movement, and the 1968-69 Charleston hospital strike are noted in the literature on those struggles, and she is treated more fully in articles and chapters by Jeanne TheoharisVicki Crawford, and David Chappell—and in her recently published posthumous memoir. But the work on her is limited. So, it should sadden but not shock us when, if her work after her husband’s death is recognized at all, it is in regard to her efforts to bring about Martin Luther King Holiday. This historiographic gap is the context for the decision in the important film Selma to emphasize that Scott King never wed again in its portrayal of how she spent the rest of her life. It is towards a fuller rendering of Scott King’s life that this research is situated.

The misrecognitions of Scott King’s life are first produced archivally. As Bernice King noted recently, her mother’s papers are closed to researchers. I was able to untangle certain threads of her life mainly through the archives of powerful men with whom she collaborated, such as labor activists Murray Finley and Cleveland Robinson.

But there are other archival silences. For example, her future husband’s comment that he was “much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” is often quoted. But what is not frequently referenced is the context of the remark. It came in a letter to Scott, early in their courtship, after she had gifted him a copy of Edward Bellamy’s socialist novel, Looking Backward 2000–1887. Scott had inscribed the copy, “I shall be interested to know your reactions to Bellamy’s predictions about our future.”

Coretta Scott King, 1964. Photo: Library of Congress.
Coretta Scott King, 1964. Photo: Library of Congress.

Investigating such evidence asks us to use the methods of Black feminist historiography—those innovated by scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Sarah Haley—to read deep, complex, human lives into shallow archives. Ashley Farmer recently synthesized this well when she relayed how she came to study Mae Mallory, after encountering her mentioned briefly in a biography of Robert Williams. “I was primed as a scholar of black women’s history to take those two sentences and pull them out…I thought: ‘There’s probably a whole book there. Someone just has to look.’”

Evidence like Scott King’s gift of Bellamy’s novel compels one to ask: who was the young Coretta Scott who offered her suitor such a present? As the editors of the recent collection Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women ask, “What were the intellectual traditions behind black women’s activism?” For young Coretta Scott, one such answer is Shirley Graham, not yet Shirley Graham Du Bois. It is likely that Scott would have been one of the many who rose to give Graham’s speech at the 1948 Progressive Party convention a standing ovation. After all, Graham was the biographer of Scott’s hero, Paul Robeson, who was also a leading member of the Progressive Party. Graham’s speech that night had explained that the convention was crucial for bringing together the principles of “PEACE, FREEDOM, and ABUNDANCE.” Graham urged the audience to dream of what they wanted: “PEACE without battleships, atomic bombs and lynch ropes.” Graham announced, “We would use Science for human uplift and not for death.” For Graham, “peace” did not only mean the occasion of not fighting in a war against international enemies, but instead an armistice of what often appeared as a war within the nation against those considered surplus populations and domestic enemies—the unemployed—whom capital did not seek to exploit for their waged labor. As Graham put it, “peace … will mean health to our sick, homes to our homeless, education for our children, food for the hungry of the world and clothes to the naked.” When, over the subsequent decades, Scott King and her husband spoke to similar goals of recalibrating common assessments of “peace” and “violence,” they were not simply articulating individual brilliance, but instead a social vision and a set of moral values that had been in the making for decades through the long history of Black freedom movements.

Twenty-six years later, Scott King would attempt to further such political visions as she created the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council (NCFE/FEAC) in 1974. Fighting for governmental support for material subsistence had been a core element of Black freedom movements since at least reconstruction. Starting in the 1940s, this vision often expressed itself as the demand for guaranteed jobs or income. Scott King adhered to this tradition, and following the Voting Rights Act, now saw a real path to its achievement. As she explained during the heat of these contests, “we gave birth to the Black vote—[now] we are trying to serve as midwife to economic and social justice.”1 Similarly, Scott King’s analysis connected to Graham’s insights into what, at the time of Graham’s remarks, had been a nascent system of military Keynesianism. Decades later, Scott King emphasized that the economy needed to be decoupled from violence. She explained in 1975, “This nation has never honestly dealt with the question of a peacetime economy and what it means in terms of the development within the country. We’ve had much greater employment during times when we’ve been engaged in war. … We recognize that in the urgency of the unemployment crisis there must be immediate solutions, jobs must be provided immediately by the government.”2

Then Vice President-elect Hubert H. Humphrey (left), alongside Coretta Scott King (center), and Civil Rights Leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (right), at a rally at Harlem's 369th Regiment Armory on December 17, 1964. Photo: Library of Congress.
Then Vice President-elect Hubert H. Humphrey (left), alongside Coretta Scott King (center), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (right), at a rally in 1964. Photo: Library of Congress.

Accordingly, Scott King knew that there was plenty of work to be done, but it was work that was not deemed valuable or socially necessary under capitalism. She advocated for governmental support that would serve human needs: childcare and eldercare; mass transportation; housing for poor and working-class people; education, arts, and recreation. She saw this work as preparing society for peace, just as it had been prepared for war and violence via military contracts and the creation of the “gunbelt.”

Scott King’s efforts would see limited legislative affirmation. Her coalition was the grassroots force behind the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act—a law whose principles have been abrogated since pretty much day one. But Scott King did not consider that a failure. Instead, she thought of that partial victory as carving out a toehold for a long climb—a climb that continues today.

Scott King had seen a brief, fleeting moment of opportunity to move away from military Keynesianism, to move left. In the years after, she fought against many of the signal events of the ascending neoliberal order—those that wrenched military Keynesianism rightward. The Humphrey-Hawkins Act had aimed to bring the Federal Reserve under greater political and democratic control, seeing the high interest rate policies of Fed Chair Arthur Burns as a prelude to the infamous Volcker Shock (when Fed Chair Paul Volcker raised the prime interest rate above 20%, which helped elicit similar rates of unemployment for Black workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Writing on the anniversary of her husband’s death in 1981, she inveighed against the many manifestations of institutionalized violence, from the growing prison system to concerns about environmental justice and occupational safety. She explained the multiple forms oppression takes: “in foreign policy, our nation, pledged for democracy, provides weapons and advisers for a brutal military dictatorship in El Salvador.” She highlighted the role of finance capital in facilitating political repression: “In the financial sector, American banks subsidize continued racism and brutality in South Africa.”3 However, this powerful moral vision should not be thought of solely as the provenance of Scott King or her husband. It should rather be understood as a reflection of the collective social values of the long, broad, Black freedom movements—those cultivated by Shirley Graham, Paul Robeson, and countless others—finding expression in discrete moments, being applied in action—a freedom praxis.

These social values continue to resonate today. A few months after Scott King outlined the many expressions of violence in society, she was in Washington, D.C. to support the striking Air Traffic Controllers union, and in opposition to the broader Reagan agenda. Speaking to the other marchers, she outlined the necessity of building a new majority against the multiplying articulations of violence:

We are black and white. We are Hispanic, Asian and Native American men, women and children, senior citizens, handicapped, from all religions and social classes. We are people with jobs and people who are jobless, but today we speak with one voice…We have come to the Capitol of this great nation to protest against the abandonment of social responsibility and the cynical politics of wholesale selfishness. Let this demonstration be a clear signal to the lawmakers that American working people of all races will not suffer in silence while the architects of reaction seek to shatter the hard won social and economic gains of the last 50 years.”4

These words and this history direct our attention to both the unfinished tasks of the civil rights movement and the increasing forms of institutionalized violence today. Just as Scott King opposed US foreign policy in El Salvador, we can honor her legacy by advocating for the immigration rights of refugees from the region. We can honor her legacy by winning governmental guarantees of jobs or income. We can honor her legacy by fulfilling and enlarging the social values and freedom praxis she nourished.

*This post is based on David P. Stein’s “‘This Nation Has Never Honestly Dealt with the Question of a Peacetime Economy’: Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for a Nonviolent Economy in the 1970s,” Souls 18, no. 1 (March 2016): 80–105. The article was selected as the 2017 Maria Stewart Prize for the best journal article in black intellectual history.

  1. “Fundraising Letter and Campaign Update,” May 1977. Box: 12, Folder: 31. Cleveland Robinson Papers WAG.006.001. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
  2.  Congressional Record, 94th Cong., 1st Sess. (1975), 10887–89. See also: Mary Ellen Perry, “Q and A: Coretta Scott King on Justice–Economic,” The Washington Star, April 15, 1975. Box: 9, Folder: 8. ACTWU’s Vice-President’s Office Records #5619/029. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.
  3. King, Coretta Scott, “An Antidote for a Society Poisoned by Violence,” Newsday, April 5, 1981.
  4. King, Coretta Scott, “The Cynical Politics of Selfishness,” AFL-CIO American Federationist, October 1981.

David Stein

David Stein is a Lecturer in the Departments of History and African American Studies at University of California-Los Angeles. His first book, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929-1986, will be published by University of North Carolina Press. He co-hosts and produces Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast with Betsy Beasley. Follow him on Twitter @davidpstein.