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Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, dies at 78
The Associated Press
ATLANTA – Coretta Scott King, who turned a life shattered by her husband's assassination into one devoted to enshrining his legacy of human rights and equality, has died. She was 78.
Flags at the King Center were lowered to half-staff today.
"We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," the King family said in a statement. The family said she died overnight, but did not say where she died. She suffered a serious stroke and heart attack in 2005.
"It's a bleak morning for me and for many people and yet it's a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was," the poet Maya Angelou said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"It's bleak because I can't — many of us can't hear her sweet voice but it's great because she did live, and she was ours. I mean African-Americans and white Americans and Asians, Spanish-speaking — she belonged to us and that's a great thing."
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who is close to the King family, broke the news on NBC's "Today" show: "I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter (Bernice King) went in to wake her up and she was not able to and so she quietly slipped away. Her spirit will remain with us just as her husband's has."
She was a supportive lieutenant to her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the most tumultuous days of the American civil rights movement. She had married him in 1953.
After her husband's assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, she kept his dream alive while also raising their four children.
King's death was a "monumental loss to the nation and the world at large," the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a written statement.
"She was truly the first lady of the human rights movement," he said. "The only thing worse than losing her is if we never had her."
King became a symbol, in her own right, of her husband's struggle for peace and brotherhood, presiding with a quiet, steady, stoic presence over seminars and conferences on global issues.
"I'm more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality," King said soon after his slaying, a demonstration of the strong will that lay beneath the placid calm and dignity of her character.
She was devoted to her children and considered them her first responsibility. But she also wrote a book, "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.," and, in 1969, founded the multimillion-dollar Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
King saw to it that the center became deeply involved with the issues she said breed violence — hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism.
"The center enables us to go out and struggle against the evils in our society," she often said.
After her stroke, King missed the annual King holiday celebration in Atlanta earlier this month, but she did appear with her children at an awards dinner a couple of days earlier, smiling from her wheelchair but not speaking. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.
At the same time, the King Center's board of directors was considering selling the site to the National Park Service to let the family focus less on grounds maintenance and more on King's message. But two of the four children were strongly against such a move.
Coretta Scott was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music and planning on a singing career when a friend introduced her to Martin Luther King, a young Baptist minister working toward a Ph.D. at Boston University.
"She said she wanted me to meet a very promising young minister from Atlanta," King once said, adding with a laugh, "I wasn't interested in meeting a young minister at that time."
She recalled that on their first date, he told her, "You know, you have everything I ever wanted in a woman. We ought to get married someday." Eighteen months later — June 18, 1953 — they did, in the garden of her parents' home in Marion, Ala.
The couple then moved to Montgomery, Ala., where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and organized the famed Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. With that campaign, King began enacting his philosophy of direct social action.
The couple's first child, Yolanda Denise, was born that same year. She was followed by Martin III, born in 1957; Dexter Scott, born in 1961; and Bernice Albertine, born in 1963.
Over the years, King was with her husband in his finest hours. She was at his side as he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Sporting flat-heeled shoes, King marched beside her husband from Selma, Ala., into Montgomery in 1965 for the triumphal climax to his drive for a voting rights law.
Trained in music, she sang in many concerts and narrated civil rights history to raise money for the cause.
Only days after his death, she flew to Memphis with three of her children to lead the march of thousands in honor of her slain husband and to plead for his cause. Her unfaltering composure and controlled grief during those days stirred the hearts of millions.
"I think you rise to the occasion in a crisis," she once said. "I think the Lord gives you strength when you need it. God was using us — and now he's using me, too."
She said her life without her husband, though drastically changed, was immensely fulfilling.
"It's a fulfilling life in so many ways, in terms of the children, the nonviolent civil rights cause and in the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial center."
In 1982, she saw the fruition of her dream, the completion of the King Center in Atlanta; the $8.5 million Freedom Hall, adjacent to the center, was dedicated later that year. The slain civil rights leader's tomb surrounded a reflecting pool is the centerpiece of the campus.
The opulence of the center drew criticism from some long-time supporters of the movement. But King consistently pointed to its role, not just in shaping policy, but as a teaching center, and also to its functions in providing tutoring, education and day care for Atlanta's black community.
The King family, especially King and her father-in-law, Martin Luther King Sr., were highly visible in 1976, when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter ran for president. When an integration dispute at Carter's Plains church created a furor, King campaigned at Carter's side the next day.
She later was named by Carter to serve as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, where the ambassador was Andrew Young, a top King aide in the movement who later became mayor of Atlanta.
In 1997, she spoke out in favor of a push to grant a trial for James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to killing her husband and then recanted.
"Even if no new light is shed on the facts concerning my husband's assassination, at least we and the nation can have the satisfaction of knowing that justice has run its course in this tragedy," she told a judge.
The trial never took place; Ray died in 1998. Coretta Scott King still appealed for a federal commission with subpoena power to look into the assassination, saying she did so "not only for our family, but for the entire nation."
King was born April 27, 1927, in Perry County, Ala. Her father ran a country store. She once said that she was determined, even in girlhood, to do something positive for the cause of human rights. To help her family during the Depression, young Coretta picked cotton.
She left her home state in 1947, when she won a scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and worked as a waitress to earn her way.
In 1994, King stepped down as head of the King Center, passing the job to son Dexter, who in turn passed the job on to her other son, Martin III, in 2004. Dexter continued to serve as the center's chief operating officer. Martin III also has served on the Fulton County (Ga.) commission and as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, cofounded by his father in 1957. Daughter Yolanda became an actress and the youngest child, Bernice, became a Baptist minister.
On the 25th anniversary of her husband's death, April 5, 1993, King said the war in Vietnam which her husband opposed "has been replaced by an undeclared war on our central cities, a war being fought by gangs with guns for drugs."
"The value of like in our cities has become as cheap as the price of a gun," she said.
She became increasingly outspoken against businesses such as film and television companies, video arcades, gun manufacturers and toy makers she accused of promoting violence. She called for regulation of their advertising.
"In this country, we vigorously regulate the sale of medicine and severely limit the advertising of cigarettes because of their effect on human health," she said Jan. 15, 1994, the 65th anniversary of her husband's birth. "But we allow virtually anyone in America to buy a gun and virtually everyone in the nation to see graphic violence."
King received numerous honors for herself and traveled around the world in the process.
In London, she stood in 1969 in the same carved pulpit in St. Paul's Cathedral where her husband preached five years earlier.
"Many despair at all the evil and unrest and disorder in the world today," she preached, "but I see a new social order and I see the dawn of a new day."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company