The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first time Coretta saw Martin, she was not impressed. He won her over.

Martin Luther King Jr. kisses his wife, Coretta, in 1960 as he is welcomed back from Georgia's Reidsville State Prison. (AP)
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As the young woman’s date got out of his green Chevy and headed for her front door, she peeked out her window to get a first look at him. She was not impressed.

He was too short. And he had a cleanshaven baby face.

“He looked like a boy when I had expected a grown man,” she remembered later.

Those were 24-year-old Coretta Scott’s first impressions upon seeing her future husband, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday would later become a national holiday.

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Fortunately for history, by the time the date was over, she’d had a change of heart.

“The longer we talked, the taller he grew in stature and the more mature he became in my eyes,” she wrote in her memoir.

And, of course, it didn’t hurt that he soon grew back his trademark mustache — it had been shaved during his fraternity’s pledge week — which made him look older.

Martin and Coretta were both born and raised in the Jim Crow South, but they met in Boston in January 1952. By then, they had both carved paths few Black Americans at the time could have taken: Coretta, a talented classical singer, was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, and Martin, only 22 at the time, was a prodigy pursuing a PhD at Boston University.

Coretta’s climb to an exclusive education was steeper than that of Martin, who was raised among Atlanta’s Black elite. Growing up in Alabama, she had picked cotton with her family and witnessed the house her father built with his own hands being burned down by racist White neighbors. Her mother pulled strings to get her into a semiprivate school for Black students, where she excelled. That led to a full scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio, where she studied music and education.

During her time in Ohio, Coretta dated a Jewish man, a fellow student and her piano accompanist, for two years. They even discussed marriage, but nagging questions about how they would deal with their interracial relationship ultimately drove them apart, she later wrote. At the same time, the racist local school board refused to let her complete in-person class time she needed for her teaching certificate; eventually she transferred to the conservatory in Boston, but not before joining the NAACP and becoming politically active.

In Boston, she began to make a name for herself as a vocalist but struggled financially, so she worked part time as a maid and sometimes received assistance from a local network of Black women. One of those women, Mary Powell, called one day with a question: Had she ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.?

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Martin was already well known in Boston’s Black community, not only for his preaching and nascent activism, but also as something of a ladies’ man. LaVerne Eagleson, a classmate of Coretta, told Boston Magazine he had stared at her at a restaurant before boldly picking up his food and moving to sit right next to her. They went on a few dates. There were no sparks between them, Eagleson said, but she remembered him telling her that “he was going to kill Jim Crow.”

Still, Coretta hadn’t heard of him. Powell told her about him, and that he had recently lamented to her that he hadn’t been able to find a steady girlfriend. Powell had given him Coretta’s phone number.

Martin soon called, and they arranged the date in which he picked her up in the green Chevy and made a poor first impression. She wore a light blue suit and a “tightly buttoned” coat. They went to Sharaf’s Cafeteria, a local chain popular at the time, and across the table, she felt his stare. “He examined me carefully,” she wrote.

But their conversation flowed with ease that Thursday, and they talked “about everything, from questions of war and peace to questions of racial and economic justice.” That’s when he started to grow on her, and he was clearly impressed she knew about more than just music.

On the drive home — from their first date! — he stunned her. While stopped at a light, he told her, “You have everything I want in a wife. I only have four things, and you have them all.”

The four things were character, intelligence, personality and beauty. She was so shocked she could barely sleep that night. Was he joking? she wondered. But he seemed so serious! Did she like him back? Or should she focus on her music career?

Their next date was that Saturday, and he took her to a house party stocked full of young women who fawned all over him. Martin seemed to bask in their attention; still, he introduced her as his girlfriend and spoke again of marriage.

That night, he walked her to her door, and they “embraced,” she wrote, “and for the first time I thought now here is a man I could really fall in love with.”

He took her dancing — “he could do everything from the jitterbug to the waltz” — and to a concert with the classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein. She was touched that he thought of a date so meaningful to her.

As the months of their courtship went on, Martin didn’t waver from his seriousness about her. But in some ways, Coretta had a bigger decision to make than he did. Marrying him, a Baptist preacher and his father’s likely successor at a large Atlanta congregation, would mean giving up on being a classical vocalist. Sure, she could still teach music as a preacher’s wife, but dreams of European tours, glamorous gowns and a career of her own would forever remain dreams.

But she also saw a life full of meaning, not just as a wife and mother, but also as an activist and a Christian. After prayer and reassurance from friends and family, she chose Martin.

They married on her parent’s lawn in Alabama on June 18, 1953, 16 months after they met. The wedding was “small by Atlanta standards” but the biggest thing that had ever happened in her small hometown. And she insisted on one change to their vows, a rare and radical demand in those times — she would not vow to “obey” him.