A single mother's quest to honor Coretta Scott King.
When Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died on January 30, 2006, residents of her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, brought roses to her husband’s tomb at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The rose, they knew, was Mrs. King’s favorite flower.
But not everyone that grieved was able to give a rose. Janet Walker, a struggling writer and single mother of one, couldn’t afford to buy a flower. She lived paycheck to paycheck, and on the Monday night of Mrs. King’s death, Janet had already spent her weekly budget on rent, gasoline and groceries.
Penniless but wanting to give something to Mrs. King, on Wednesday Janet wrote a song, something she had done all her life whenever deeply moved by someone’s death. The result was a dirge extolling Mrs. King’s attributes as a loyal wife, royal mother, and peaceful activist. With the funeral less than a week away, Janet knew that anyone who would learn and perform the song needed to have it as soon as possible.
So, she contacted music directors at a major historically Black university and a historic Black church in Atlanta and asked if they were interested in learning the song before the funeral. She received no’s. She left a copy of the song on paper and cassette with a music professor at a large local university and at the funeral home that was preparing Mrs. King’s body; she hoped the undertakers would get the song to the King family. She called the talent agency that handled the speaking career of one of Mrs. King’s daughters and left a sample of the song on the agency’s voice mail.
Desperate to have the song heard during the period of mourning, Janet attended a nighttime vigil for Mrs. King at another iconic Black university in town and asked the program director if she could perform the song. He said that she could but never called on her to do so.
It seemed no one was interested in the poor single mother’s substitute for a rose.
“Well,” she told her 13-year-old son, Chad, “I guess I wrote this song for you and me only.”
On Saturday, the day of the viewing of Mrs. King’s body at the state capitol in downtown Atlanta, Janet prepared to watch the life-celebration and mourning activities on TV. However, she says, a restless spirit settled upon her and forced her to go downtown to the Georgia State University computer lab, where she printed out a brief editorial that began life years before as a seven-page essay that argued for the naming of an Atlanta landmark after Mrs. King. She intended to deliver the editorial to one of the city’s small Black newspapers to see if she could get it printed (the papers had rejected the piece in the past). For a reason she did not understand at the time, Janet also printed out several copies of her song.
After Janet joined the body-viewing queue that wrapped around a city block, a woman behind Janet asked what she had in the folder in her arms. Janet thought it a strange question from a stranger but told the woman that it was a song she had written for Mrs. King. “Oh!” the stranger said. “Are you going to sing it?” Janet answered, “I don’t know. I’d like to.”
The conversation ended, but it weighed on Janet’s thoughts. “Why not sing it?” she reasoned. “I’ve got it. I wrote it. It is a funeral song, so it should be sung here. So…why not?”
Gathering courage, Janet stepped out of line and onto a small concrete wall that lined the sidewalk on Mitchell Street. She said, “Excuse me. Is there anyone interested in learning and singing a song for Coretta?” She was amazed when, all around her, hands shot into the air.
Because she was nervous, Janet’s voice did not carry well as she demonstrated the melody, so a female minister in the crowd, who was from the Midwest, used her robust singing voice to make sure everyone heard the melody and could copy it. With that, the group moved along in the queue and sang the song over and over again.
A woman approached with a cell phone. She handed it to Janet and asked if she wouldn’t mind singing into it. The woman said that on the other end was a friend whose constraints as a medical student prevented her from traveling to Atlanta for the viewing. Would Janet please not mind singing a verse to the med student? Janet complied, and both the woman with the phone and the unseen student on the other end expressed tearful gratitude.
When the singers neared the capitol, a female security guard approached them, ready, it seemed, to silence them—until she heard what they were singing. Her face softened into a smile and she retreated but told Janet that they needed to stop singing when they reached the doors of the building. The group agreed, but out of respect for Mrs. King, they grew silent even before they reached the doors.
After viewing Mrs. King’s lovely face in the coffin, Janet exited the building and felt both grateful for the viewing and void and disappointed, for the quick look at the woman she regarded as queen seemed an abrupt end to what had been a great emotional week. She knew that if she felt that way as a resident of Atlanta, visitors who had come from hundreds of miles away might feel even more of a letdown.
So, Janet decided to prolong their experience. She stopped on the covered porch of the doors through which the visitors were exiting and held before her one of her favorite photos of Mrs. King. The female minister joined her right away, and they sang several verses until the minister had to leave with her party. After that, Janet sang alone.
Singing for an audience was not an entirely new experience for Janet. In her late teens and early twenties, she had performed, as a non-professional, at wedding receptions and with a basement band. But it had been fifteen years since she’d stopped performing, because for some reason she’d lost her stage voice. But as she stood on the porch of the capitol, she marveled that the voice coming out of her throat was clear, non-quavering, and even pretty. It was the voice, she felt as she sang, of someone else. Or, at least, a voice over which someone else had taken control.
People exiting and seeing her immediately smiled with appreciation or nodded with approval. Some asked if she had copies of the song on CD, and it pained her to tell them that she did not, for she knew that what they were really asking for was a keepsake from the historic and heart-touching occasion. She was sure that was why some snapped photos of her as she sang.
Soon, a handsome young man strode onto the porch, stood on the other side of it, and watched Janet with interest. She did not know him, but as a former print and broadcast journalist herself, she recognized the man’s demeanor and knew he was a reporter. She was right. After he’d listened for a moment (“To make sure,” she says, “I sounded okay and wasn’t cuckoo”), he approached and asked if she would sing the song for the camera. She agreed, and the reporter, Devin Fehely from Atlanta’s Fox 5 News, asked Janet to step onto the porch steps, where he hooked a microphone to her clothes.
Out from under the spell of the porch, Janet says she did not sing the song with the control she had been using before. Still, when she went to Georgia State the following Monday, a schoolmate rushed up to her, trembling with excitement, to say that she and her mother were up at one or two a.m. over the weekend and heard pretty singing on a Fox newscast about Mrs. King. The classmate told Janet that at the end of the broadcast, the camera finally revealed who was singing. Others at Georgia State, and workmates from Janet’s job at UPS, also told her that they’d seen the broadcast.
On the evening of Mrs. King’s viewing, Janet had visited two dear friends, Verna and Virgil Hall Hodges, and told them about the event. Virgil, who had been executive director of the New York State Martin Luther King Commission and Institute for Non-Violence in Albany, NY, had been personally acquainted with Coretta and was pleased to hear what had happened to Janet. In fact, other than Janet’s son, Virgil had been the only other person to hear the song in its entirety before Janet sang it at the capitol. She had tested it on him before she attended the university vigil, singing it for him in his home office.
Now, Verna and Virgil asked Janet to sing the song for a few guests who were at their home. To her disappointment, Janet discovered that the voice she’d had on the capitol porch had vanished. Her normal singing voice, which wasn’t clear or controlled, had returned, along with stage fright, and she was unable to duplicate for her friends the miracle that had taken place earlier that day.
Still, Janet remained determined to get her song out into the world—again, and permanently. Six years after the funeral, she hired two professional musicians to transcribe the song into piano score sheets. She placed an ad in a talent forum, seeking a professional singer. No one responded.
So, Janet sang the song herself and put it online in a YouTube video. It has since garnered thousands of views and many favorable comments and continues to increase in views every year, especially during the MLK Jr. Holiday in January, the Black History Month of February, Women’s History Month in March, and in April, the month that Mrs. King was born and that her husband died. With the online presence of “The Kings’ Queen: A Song for Coretta Scott King,” people around the world can hear the musical gift Janet once thought would be heard only by her and her son.
Article originally prepared Nov. 6, 2011, by The Toni Breland Agency, LLC, Atlanta, Georgia, to honor the official copyright of “The Kings’ Queen: A Song for Coretta Scott King.” Article updated January 28, 2024, for thetonibrelandagency.com.
Gaze upon the queen
who marched with King
and gave her life to him only.
Gaze upon the queen
who used to sing
and lived a life that was holy.
Coretta Scott King, our queen.
She was a peaceful warrior.
Coretta Scott King, our queen
who wore God’s suit of armor.
Gaze upon the life
of this dear wife
and mother who was royal.
Gaze upon the face
of beauty and grace.
She to the cause was loyal.
Gaze upon the faith
that did not break.
She held fast to her dream.
Gaze upon God’s fire
that burned inside
and in her eyes did gleam.
Melody and lyrics by Janet Walker.
© 2011 by Janet M. Walker.