Coretta Scott King and the Media: Martin’s Wife

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In early February 2006, local newspapers carried news of the death of Coretta Scott King, the widow of American civil rights activist, Martin Luther King II. Most of the articles merely announced her death. The Star newspaper broke the news by publishing a full-page obituary of Scott King: “Widow become a giant in her own right” (01/02/2006, p. 15), while the Sowetan ran an opinion piece entitled: “Courageous Coretta” (02/02/2006, p. 13). The Sowetan’s full-page report, in particular, was unique for the angle the medium took in covering Scott King’s death. The daily paper was one of the few media to detail Scott King’s life as an activist before she met Martin Luther King:

She rose from rural poverty and became an international symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. King was an advocate for women’s rights and the struggle against apartheid, as well as other social and political issues” (p. 13)

Unlike many of the other media that referred to Coretta Scott King as “Mrs King,” or even as “Mrs Martin Luther King,” focusing on her role as wife, the Sowetan chose to access her as “King”. In this instance, the Sowetan is to be commended for not discriminating by gender in how it accesses men and women. In comparison, an article published in The Star referred to her as “Mrs. Martin Luther King” (“Farewell to civil rights movement’s “first lady’”, 07/02/2006, p. 4), not referring to her by her own name, but only by that of her husband. Previous MMP monitoring results on the representation of women in the news media have revealed a tendency by the media to represent women as part of a context. For example, women are represented as existing as part of a family, in relation to their husbands, friends or colleagues, but seldom as individuals in their own right, with their own ideals.

The weekend publications also carried obituaries of the late Coretta Scott King. The City Press is to be commended for the gendered angle that it took in linking Coretta Scott King’s death to that of another civil rights heroine, Rosa Parks, in late 2005. The article highlighted the role that both women played in advancing human rights issues, especially those of racism, and in the empowerment of women more broadly: “The courage and grace these women displayed in the fight for social justice and racial equality helped transform America” ( City Press, 05/02/2006, p. 26).

The Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times reported on her as an individual who supported her husband and had her own ideals, although these were the same as her husband’s (“A civil rights heroine”, Mail & Guardian, 03/02/2006, p.18 and “Coretta Scott King: The woman behind the US’s champion of civil rights”, Sunday Times, 05/02/2006, p. 19). Although brief, the Mail & Guardian article is to be commended for focusing on “A civil rights heroine”. As the title indicates, the article provided a concise summary of Scott King and her life.

Like the City Press, the Sunday Times also acknowledged Scott King’s activism work prior to her meeting Martin Luther King: “Scott King embraced her husband’s vocation. At college she had already been active in movements which dealt with racial and economic injustice” (05/02/2006, p. 19). Concerningly, the Sunday Times chose to title its article “Coretta Scott King: The woman behind the US’s champion of civil rights” (own emphasis), which perpetuated the impression that Scott King was not an individual in her own right, but a mere support system for her husband. The Sunday Times article must be commended for the angle it took in portraying Coretta Scott King as her own person; a person who complemented her husband in their shared ideals. Even after his death Scott King took on the struggle because she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, rather than to uphold her husband’s name. The article that appeared in the Sunday Independent, “King continued campaign for her husband’s civil rights ideals” (05/02/2006, p. 17), represents Scott King as continuing her husband’s work after his death. While Scott King may have continued her husband’s work, she too was an activist, and the work was not only his, but also her dream. The Sunday Independent went so far as to provide a history of Scott King’s life in relation to that of her husband. While Martin Luther King may be the more renowned of the two activists, the medium would have done well to focus on Scott King, rather than on her role as wife.

The media should be commended for covering the death of one of the world’s greatest civil rights activists extensively and broadly across a number of publications. It is important, however, to reflect Scott King as an individual activist and not as a symbol of her husband’s ideals. As one paper put it, quoting Scott King, “There are a lot of people who would love to relegate me to a symbolic figure. I have never been just a symbol, I am a thinker. I have strong beliefs” ( Sunday Independent, 05/02/2006, p. 17).


Comments, queries, suggestions? Contact Nonceba Mtwana on 082 968 5913 or the MMP on (011) 788 1278. For more information go to www.mediamonitoring.org.za

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