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A Full Partner in The Dream
Widow Quickly Found Own Voice for Change

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."

Determined still to create a lasting legacy, Mrs. King founded the King Center in the basement of her home in 1968.

Some civil rights leaders and others complained that it would divert money from the movement, including the organization her husband founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but she pressed on in spite of many obstacles. The scholarly center, which holds King's speeches and other documents about the movement, sits on 23 acres of national parkland near his grave site and family home. Mrs. King served as president of the center for 26 years until stepping down in 1994 and turning the organization over to her youngest son, Dexter.

Her other son, Martin Luther King III, assumed leadership of the center in 2004. The future of the center is now in question amid family disagreements over a potential sale to the National Park Service.

A Steady Voice for Change

Over the years, Mrs. King traveled the world, speaking on college campuses and at churches, meeting with heads of state and political leaders. She supported legislation for full employment and advocated for equal rights and economic justice for women. She disparaged war and promoted world peace. She marched against discrimination in the South and was arrested in the United States for protesting apartheid in South Africa. She became an advocate for the rights of gay men and lesbians, much to the chagrin of some black religious and political leaders and against the preaching of her youngest daughter, Bernice.

For a generation of African American women, who saw her as a picture of dignity and strength draped in black and comforting her young daughter at her husband's funeral, she was "the black Jackie Onassis." More than anything, though, throughout the past 37 years and despite her own significant activism, she was known as "Dr. King's widow."

She probably would not have had it any other way.

She once told Ebony magazine: "I will always be out here doing the things I do, and I'm not going to stop talking about Martin and promoting what I think is important in terms of teaching other people his meaning so they can live in such a way as to make a contribution to our advancement and progress."

Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Ala., in a house her father, Obadiah Scott, built in 1920. He and his wife, Bernice McMurry, had married that same year and taken up residence on land that had been in his family for generations.

"By the time I was born, he had saved enough money to buy a truck and was hauling logs and timber for the local sawmill operator," Mrs. King wrote in a memoir.

During the Depression, her father began what he called "truck farming." On its farm, the family raised vegetables as well as hogs, cows and chickens.

As soon as she and her sister and brother were old enough to hold a hoe, they helped out on the farm. At 10, Mrs. King was digging and chopping cotton with the hired workers. She even hired herself out to make money for school supplies.

"I remember one special year when I made seven dollars picking cotton," she said in her book, "My Life With Martin Luther King" (1963). "I was always very strong, and I made a very good cotton picker. Martin used to tease me about it, years later, saying that was why he had married me. He would say, 'If you hadn't met me, you'd still be down there picking cotton.' "

Her Own Dreams

As a young girl, Mrs. King knew she wanted something better than the segregated life that rural Alabama could give her. She witnessed the disparities in education between black and white students, noting once that she had to walk six miles, no matter the weather, to and from her one-room elementary school while white students were bused to brick buildings in nearby Marion.

Her parents taught her that education was the path to freedom. She said her mother forcefully told her: "You get an education and try to be somebody. Then you won't have to be kicked around by anybody, and you won't have to depend on anyone for your livelihood -- not even a man."

Her parents paid the $4.50-a-year tuition to send her to Lincoln High School in Marion, a semiprivate school for blacks run by the American Missionary Association.

Her musical talents blossomed there with teachers she admired greatly. She learned to play the flutophone, the trumpet and the piano and skillfully performed in various school programs. She also developed her talents as a singer.

After graduating as valedictorian of her high school class in 1945, Mrs. King enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Edythe, the first black student to attend the college. At Antioch, she encountered racism not unlike what she had experienced growing up in Alabama. She also found her voice and her resolve as an activist.

She called it "an unfortunate thing" when she was "the first Negro" to major in elementary education, because it required her to teach a year in an Ohio public elementary school, which the Yellow Springs School Board would not allow her to do.

Although disillusioned, she became more motivated than ever to see that what happened to her wouldn't happen to others. She joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a race-relations committee and a civil liberties committee. "I was active on all of them," she wrote. "From the first, I had been determined to get ahead not just for myself, but to do something for my people and for all people."

Nevertheless, she was grateful for the opportunities that Antioch afforded her, among them the chance to appear on a program with famous baritone Paul Robeson.

A Life-Altering Meeting

After graduating in 1951, she followed her desire to develop her voice as a concert artist by studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Less than a year had passed when she was introduced to a young minister who was a seminary student at Boston University, and her life took a detour.

The two married on June 18, 1953, at the Scotts' home in Alabama, and then the young students returned to Boston to complete their studies. She graduated with a music degree in 1954, and he received his doctoral degree.

That same year, the couple moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he took over the pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and she began her duties as a pastor's wife. Within a year, the Montgomery bus boycott was ignited when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus, and King was thrust into the spotlight as the leader of the historic boycott.

Mrs. King, by then the mother of their first child, Yolanda, joined her husband in the rights demonstrations from Montgomery to Memphis that ultimately changed the country's most discriminatory laws. Throughout the births of their other three children, she also was actively involved in organizing and planning marches and protests.

She lent her finely tuned singing voice to a series of "Freedom Concerts" that she originated to raise money for the SCLC and sometimes gave speeches in her husband's stead. She traveled throughout the world with King, spending a month with him on his pilgrimage to India in 1959 and accompanying him to Oslo in 1964 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

After his death, Mrs. King broadened the scope of her vision and her speeches beyond race. She called for women of all hues "to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war." She coordinated the Coalition of Conscience in 1983, which sponsored the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, and attended a nuclear disarmament conference in Geneva.

Mrs. King riled some civil rights leaders in 1997 when she called for a new trial for James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing her husband. She had believed, like some others, that Ray was not the true killer but that a government intelligence agency committed the crime.

Mrs. King's last public appearance was Jan. 14 at a "Salute to Greatness" dinner in Atlanta, a fundraiser for the King Center. It also celebrated the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She smiled graciously from her wheelchair, receiving a standing ovation from the 1,500 guests surprised and pleased by her presence.

Survivors include four children, a sister and a brother.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company