Coretta Scott King and the media: Martin's wife

  on January 21, 2014

On the 1st of 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).All the reports in the media monitored mentioned that she became publicly involved in civil rights issues and equal rights for all humankind after the assassination of her husband in 1968.

The weekend publications also carried obituaries of the late Mrs Coretta Scott King: "A civil rights heroine" (Mail & Guardian, 03/02/2006, p.18); "Coretta Scott King: The woman behind the US's champion of civil rights" (Sunday Times, 05/02/2006, p. 19); and "King continued campaign for her husband's civil rights ideals" (Sunday Independent, 05/02/2006, p. 17).

The obituaries of Scott King published by 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.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.

The article that appeared in the Sunday Independent 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.

The Sunday Independent went so far as to quote Scott King saying, "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).

The Sunday Times was one of the few media to acknowledge 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 Star (07/02/2006, p. 4) carried an article on the prayer service held in memory of the late Scott King.One caption refers to her as "Mrs. Martin Luther King", 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 friends or colleagues, but seldom as individuals in their own right, with their own ideals.

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.

Contact Nonceba Mtwana on 082 968 5913 or Gemma Harries on 082 783 9070, or the MMP on (011) 788 1278

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January 21, 2014
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