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Boston unveils a sculpture of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Boston over the weekend, a massive sculpture dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King was unveiled in a downtown park. The sculpture is called "The Embrace." And while they're being honored as a couple, Coretta Scott achieved much on her own. Phillip Martin of member station GBH reports.

PHILLIP MARTIN, BYLINE: Coretta Scott was originally from the Deep South. She had attended Antioch College in Ohio in 1951 before getting a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music.

ANDREA KALYN: It was not an easy thing to get into the conservatory. It isn't now; it wasn't then. And so she was very talented.

MARTIN: But Coretta Scott came here psychologically wounded from the bigotry she experienced in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Andrea Kalyn is the president of the New England Conservatory of Music.

KALYN: She actually ended up leaving Antioch because she confronted some really hideous instances of racism. And so she came to NEC, and she started out as a voice major. It was a struggle for her financially, and really was pursuing something she loved at some considerable sacrifice.

MARTIN: A considerable sacrifice indeed, says Clennon King, no relation to the civil rights leader he writes about as an historian. King says though Coretta Scott was given a full scholarship, she was destitute.

CLENNON KING: I mean, she was scrubbing floors 'cause all she had was that scholarship. She had to eat. She had to get down from Beacon Hill, down to that campus. And she had to study.

MARTIN: She paid for room and board working as a maid. Coretta had come to New England with $15 in her purse and a determination to be an opera singer. She was a soprano. So was her classmate, La Verne Weston, one of a handful of Black students at the conservatory. They met standing in line.

LA VERNE EAGLESON: I just happened to turn around, and there was this Black girl standing next to me. And I said, my name is La Verne Weston. She said, well, my name is - and it took her 15 minutes to say her name. And she told me she was from Ohio.

MARTIN: Weston, who goes by La Verne Eagleson today, is now 92. She says she could not tell at the time if Coretta Scott's hesitancy to talk about herself was due to shyness or another reason.

EAGLESON: I was already 21, and she was older than I. And I think that might have had something to do with it, and the fact that she did not live in the dormitory, so we didn't have that in common. But we were friendly.

MARTIN: Documentarian Clennon King says Coretta Scott's schedule left little time for socializing among the tiny community of Black college students. It was a small world, and La Verne Eagleson met and dated Martin Luther King Jr. before Coretta even knew who he was.

EAGLESON: I went to this restaurant and sat down to eat, and this guy sat across from me - very well dressed in a three-piece suit. And he kept staring at me. And I said, oh, my goodness. And he said, you ordered the same thing I did. You know, we chatted. And on that particular Sunday, he told me he was going to kill Jim Crow.

MARTIN: Eagleson came to realize MLK's comment was not a prediction. It was a plan. Clennon King says Coretta Scott was in year two of her studies at the conservatory and still scrubbing floors on Beacon Hill when she began dating her future husband.

KING: How everything changed was when she caught the eye of Mike, otherwise known as Martin Luther King.

MARTIN: Coretta Scott graduated in June of 1954. She did not become an opera singer but used her talents in other ways. In the fall of 1963, Coretta Scott King sang "A Balm In Gilead" at the funeral of four Black little girls murdered in the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Conservatory President Andrea Kalyn says the school is forever grateful to Coretta Scott, who she says was great before she was King.

KALYN: Coretta, as an alum, took her music and created change for the world.

MARTIN: A bust of Coretta Scott King sits in the library of the Conservatory of Music, and each year, a concert is held in her name.

For NPR News, I'm Phillip Martin in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM BRACE'S "THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Phillip Martin, GBH News