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
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, Advocate.com)