In the1962 movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” 10-year-old Birmingham native Mary Badham charmed her way into the hearts of millions with her wonderfully genuine portrayal of Scout Finch. Today, Badham coordinates college testing and restores art, while continuing her journeys all over the world sharing the movie-making experience and the enduring messages of Harper Lee’s story.
Last week, Mary Badham appeared at Birmingham-Southern College for an event appropriately titled “A Conversation with Scout.” The college, like a lengthy list of other entities and organizations in the Birmingham area, is beginning its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement. The City of Birmingham’s contribution to the anniversary, 50 Years Forward, covers a broad spectrum of disciplines including concerts, plays, movies, works of art, and special exhibits. It aims for raising awareness of the events and players in the movement as well as encouraging contemplation of how far we have come and how far we still need to go.
Native Alabamians, whose lives and souls are firmly entrenched in their home state, played crucial roles in the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. A number of these individuals continued to fight for equality long after what we usually consider the official movement was over. Coretta Scott King clearly belongs in this group.
On April 8, 1968, just four days after her husband was assassinated in Memphis, Coretta Scott King and her three oldest children marched there in his place to support the Sanitation Workers Union strike. As the world watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s beautiful young widow, there was no question that this intelligent, steel-willed woman would confidently continue to pursue his dream. The foundation shaped by her family life in Alabama’s Black Belt and the education insisted upon by her parents undoubtedly prepared Coretta Scott King to carry on her husband’s work until her death in 2006.
In Heiberger, a tiny Perry County community, Bernice and Obadiah Scott raised their three children on a farm which his family had owned since the Civil War. As soon as Coretta was big enough to manage a hoe, she helped her mother and sister tend the garden. By age 10, she worked in their cotton fields alongside the hired help. Life on the farm was arduous and required endless physical labor, but the Scott parents enriched and balanced their children’s lives with books, music, and a strong social life centered on Mount Tabor A.M.E. Zion Church. Coretta described the church in her childhood as the “largest and most important part of my world.”
Labeling herself a tomboy who climbed trees with her brother in her pre-teen years, Coretta also had a temper and readily fought her siblings or other children who angered her. The Scott children walked three miles to and from Heiberger to attend school with the other African-American children in the community. This school was actually one large classroom where grades one through six were taught by two African-American teachers on a seven month calendar with meager supplies and no library. With her love of music developed and encouraged at home and at church, Coretta was frequently asked to sing hymns and spirituals at special school events.
Education - The
first step to freedom
Coretta attended Lincoln High School in Marion, a semi-private school founded by the American Missionary Association of New York after the Civil War. Until her junior year, she boarded with an African-American family in Marion since the round trip from her home was about eighteen miles. After her father refurbished one of his trucks to function as a bus, her mother drove the local children to and from Marion, allowing them to live at home.
Lincoln was an excellent school and Coretta emphatically noted, “Lincoln opened the world to me, especially the world of music.” In addition to learning to play the trumpet, she worked with her mentor, Miss Olive J. Williams, who taught Coretta to read music and introduced her to classical music as well as important African American musicians. Miss Williams gave Coretta her first voice lessons and continued her piano training. Carrying this noteworthy musical training to church activities, she became a pianist and choir director for Mount Tabor when she was fifteen.
Bernice and Obadiah Scott emphasized the importance of education throughout her life and Coretta pointed out, “My parents taught us to think of education as the first step on the way to freedom.” Her father always worked several jobs simultaneously — farming, sawmilling, hauling lumber, and barbering. During these years, he experienced several acts of racial violence, including the burning of their home and his sawmill, as he unceasingly endeavored to make their dream for their children’s education an economic reality.
Bernice Scott worked equally hard toward their goal and straightforwardly advised her daughter, “You get an education and try to be somebody. Then you won’t be kicked around by anybody and you won’t have to depend on anyone for your livelihood — not even on a man.”
Antioch College — Turning point and
hint for her calling
After Coretta graduated as valedictorian from Lincoln in 1945, armed with a scholarship and an eagerness to explore life outside the South, she followed in her sister’s footsteps and attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch’s curriculum was difficult and Coretta described herself as a “grind” in her first few semesters. Both her roommates were white and though the experience was “quite an adjustment for all three of us,” the young women successfully met the challenges of the situation.
At Antioch Coretta studied music with Walter F. Anderson, head of the music department as well as a composer, concert pianist, and Civil Rights activist. Coretta gave her first vocal concert in college and sang on the program with one of her role models, world-famous baritone Paul Robeson. As one of only a few African-American students at Antioch, Coretta was the first to major in elementary education. This required student teaching for two years. After teaching music for one year in the private on-campus school, Coretta applied to teach in the Yellow Springs public schools, an integrated system with an all-white faculty. After her application was rejected, the college would not take any action to help her appeal the decision as it feared retribution aimed at the entire Antioch student teaching program. This event became a turning point for Coretta and may have been the first hint for her calling in life.
As she joined the college’s NAACP chapter, the Civil Liberties Committee, and the Race Relations Committee, Coretta’s anger and disappointment about her student teaching turned into activism. Speaking of this time, she explained, “From the first I had been determined to get ahead, not just for myself, but to do something for my people and for all people. I took to heart the words of Horace Mann, who founded Antioch… ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.’”
Realizing a life
dedicated to service
In June 1951, Coretta graduated from Antioch and was awarded a grant to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. She set out for Boston empowered by an excellent undergraduate education and a continually growing sense of self-worth, which was nurtured in her home, blossomed at Lincoln High School, and continued to mature during her college years. Determined not to accept the offered help from her parents, Coretta scrubbed floors and did laundry for her landlady to pay for her room and ate peanut butter and graham crackers for dinner until other part-time job opportunities became available. Coretta’s financial struggles seemed insignificant as she flourished in the conservatory’s world where she could literally immerse herself in music all day long.
Coretta met Martin Luther King, Jr. during her second semester at the conservatory when he was working on his doctorate at Boston University. Although he spoke of marriage in the very early days of their relationship, she meticulously considered her future with him. After a 16-month courtship and her realization that a minister’s wife must make a serious commitment to a life of service, they married in June 1953 at her parents’ home in Marion.
For the next 15 years, Coretta courageously stood, marched, sang, and spoke at her husband’s side, on her own, and in his place as he carried out his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement.
By the time she passed away in 2006, Coretta Scott King had faithfully and unselfishly served more than 50 years struggling to build a world where nonviolence, peace, tolerance, and equality thrive. Her extraordinary life and indomitable spirit, dedicated to service to others, found nourishing roots in rural Alabama and ultimately touched lives all over the world.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890