Coretta Scott King 1927-2006

A Full Partner in The Dream

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Coretta Scott King, who with grace and determination kept her husband's legacy alive and emerged as one of America's most influential voices for social change and human rights, died yesterday at an alternative medical clinic in Mexico. She was 78.

Mrs. King, who suffered a debilitating stroke and heart attack in August, went to Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito Beach, a few miles south of San Diego in Baja California, Mexico, within the past two weeks for observation and treatment of ovarian cancer.

Widowed by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968, Mrs. King did not grieve publicly. Instead, she immediately filled the void of leadership and continued to preach the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence, making it her own. To ensure that his dream of racial equality and justice remained etched in the collective consciousness of the nation and the world, Mrs. King founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in his home town of Atlanta. She also overcame persistent opposition to secure the establishment of a national federal holiday to honor her late husband, the only such holiday honoring an African American.

Mrs. King did not simply inherit her husband's legacy; instead, she was a full partner in marriage and in the struggle for equality, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said yesterday.

"When we lost King, she did what partners do," said Norton, a veteran of the civil rights movement. "Coretta carried forward the authentic essence of their life's work for nonviolence and universal human rights. She worked so ceaselessly and magnificently for the great causes they had both embraced that she succeeded in creating her own way and carving her own unique and matchless role."

A woman whose determination shone through a poised, regal demeanor, Mrs. King emerged from her husband's enormous shadow within days of his death and began casting a bright light of her own. As a newly widowed, single mother of four young children, she set a new course for her life as an advocate of many causes, an international speaker, an author and a humanitarian.

Standing in Ebenezer Baptist Church two days after her husband was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Mrs. King told a crowd: "My husband faced the possibility of death without bitterness or hatred. He knew that this was a sick society, totally infested with racism and violence. . . . He struggled with every ounce of his energy to save that society from itself. He never hated. He never despaired of well-doing. And he encouraged us to do likewise, and so he prepared us constantly for tragedy. . . . Our concern now is that his work does not die."

A day before his funeral, Mrs. King, with her three oldest children by her side, led tens of thousands of people in a protest march for sanitation workers in Memphis that her husband planned. "See that his spirit never dies," she said.

In the ensuing days and months, under the glare of media attention, she marched in her husband's place at protests and spoke at anti-Vietnam War rallies and the Poor People's Campaign in Washington. She also tried to calm the raging anger and violence that his death ignited in several U.S. cities.

Prominent among her accomplishments was the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It took 15 years of pushing, with some 6 million petitions presented to Congress, before the first holiday was officially commemorated in 1986. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan, who had initially opposed the holiday as too costly, signed legislation marking the third Monday in January.

"People said it wouldn't happen," Lynn Cothern, Mrs. King's special assistant, told the Kansas City Star in 1999. "She did it the old-fashioned way: It was presented every year to Congress. She'd lobby for it, and she took petitions to [then House Speaker] Tip O'Neill."

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