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Coretta Scott
King dies at 78

Coretta Scott
King dies at 78


King is being remembered as a tireless advocate for African-Americans, women, and gays and lesbians.

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 in Atlanta were lowered to half-staff Tuesday morning. "We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," the King family said in a statement. The family said she died overnight; they did not say where she died. She suffered a serious stroke and heart attack in 2005. Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, a 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." King had a special place in the hearts of many gay men and lesbians as she stood up for equality over the years, especially in March 2004 when she denounced a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. Constitutional amendments should be used to expand freedom, not restrict it, she said. "Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union," she said. "A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages." King made her comments during a speech at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "All of us who aspire to live without prejudice or limits owe a very large debt to Mrs. King," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "She was what Virginia Woolf once called that rare combination of 'granite and rainbow,' at once an immovable legacy on which we all stood and a luminous reminder of the arc waiting just behind the rain. A tireless advocate for equality, she leaves us both her own work and the work we must all yet do." In 1998, King said, "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people.... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people." She was a supportive lieutenant to her husband, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., during the most tumultuous days of the American civil rights movement. She 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 is a "monumental loss to the nation and the world at large," the Reverend Al Sharpton said in a written statement. "She was truly the first lady of the human rights movement. The only thing worse than losing her is if we never had her." She worked to keep Martin Luther King's ideology of equality for all people at the forefront of the nation's agenda. She goaded and pushed for more than a decade to have her husband's birthday observed as a national holiday, then watched with pride in 1983 as President Reagan signed the bill establishing the holiday into law. The first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986. 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 KingJr., 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, 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 in January, 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 Jr., 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 living out 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 by a reflecting pool, is the centerpiece of the campus. The opulence of the center drew criticism from some longtime 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 Coretta and her father-in-law, Martin Luther King Sr., were highly visible in 1976, when former Georgia governor 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." Coretta Scott King was born April 27, 1927, in Perry County, Ala. Her father ran a country store. She once said 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 pay 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. (AP,

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