Keeping Coretta Scott King’s legacy alive, 15 years later

Saturday is anniversary of death of Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife
This Week in Black History, Coretta Scott King (Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress)

Credit: Warren K. Leffler

Credit: Warren K. Leffler

This Week in Black History, Coretta Scott King (Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress)

There is something about transformation.

For Bernice King, it came at about 11:35 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 30, 2006, in a Mexican hospital.

For Martin Luther King III, it came in the form of a wife and daughter.

Saturday marks 15 years since their mother, Coretta Scott King, died at the age of 78 after a battle with ovarian cancer. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Alabama-born, classically trained singer became a single mother of four, who worked tirelessly to carry forth her husband’s work, all the while becoming a political and cultural force on her own terms.

Bernice King and Martin Luther King III reflect on their mother Coretta Scott King. (Left: Courtesy of the King Center; Right: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: King Center

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Credit: King Center

Now, her family and scholars are trying to figure out ways to keep her legacy alive, as vigorously as she kept her husband’s alive, including her push to create a national holiday for him every third Monday in January. And the subsequent building of a national memorial in Washington, D.C.

“I view mother’s legacy as an extension of dad’s. Dad’s legacy is not just his, it is a joined legacy and I don’t think the public understands that,” said King III. “She was a full partner in his legacy of love and non-violence. She never deviated from non-violence.”

Bernice: the last 96 hours

Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice, 5, are shown April 9, 1968, attending the funeral of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Atlanta, in this Pulitzer-prize winning file photograph taken by Moneta J. Sleet, Jr., the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for photography. (AP Photo/Moneta J. Sleet, Jr.)


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It was 38 years before that morning in Mexico that a five-year Bernice King made her public debut. On the lap of her grieving mother at the funeral of her father. The Pulitzer Prize photo of Coretta Scott King sealed her image as not only the first lady of the civil rights movement but also a comforter.

Now, lying beside her in an adjoining hospital bed, Bernice King watched as her mother “took her last four breaths.” Her mind flashed back to that moment in church.

“I got to spend the last 96 hours with her. A final, special time of bonding for us,” Bernice King said. “Having been there when she took those last four breaths it was like something transferred to me at that moment. I feel a responsibility and burden to carry forth her legacy. Me being at the King Center is more about her than my dad. You wouldn’t be celebrating and uplifting Martin Luther King Jr. if not for the work she did.”

Building a legacy

Bernice King, who now serves as the CEO of the King Center, is in the process of hiring someone to digitize all of her mother’s papers. More than 62 years dating back to 1943. In October, to mark their 40th anniversary, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, in partnership with the King Center, opened a new outdoor exhibit that, in part, told the story of Coretta Scott King’s influence.

In North Carolina, Kelisha Graves, a 30-year-old professor at Fayetteville State University, has done some of the most extensive independent research on the life of Scott King, digging through papers at small libraries, reading obscure magazines, and interviewing nearly everyone with any kind of connection to her, including former teachers and family members, for a book she is working on.

Fayetteville State University professor Kelisha Graves has done extensive research on the life and works of Coretta Scott King.

Credit: Courtesy Kelisha Graves

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Credit: Courtesy Kelisha Graves

Just weeks before Scott King’s death in 2006, the then 15-year-old Graves saw a documentary featuring Scott King and was transfixed. As part of her curriculum, she makes all of FSU’s freshmen read Scott King’s 1948 “Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life,” article, “Why I Came to College.”

In it, Scott King, who graduated from Antioch College, writes to Black readers that college graduates “had greater freedom of movement: they went on trips; they visited cities; they knew more about the world.”

“One of my goals is to position Mrs. King as a thinker and an architect,” Graves said. “She is stunted in some peoples’ consciousness and my goal is to expand how we talk about Mrs. King and elevate her as someone who had ideas.”

But Lynn Cothren, King’s longtime special assistant, wonders if all of that is even enough. He said Coretta Scott King’s work in support of gay rights and to combat HIV/AIDS was groundbreaking.

“When I look at the country and this new administration and the issues around women and leadership, I am reminded of her,” Cothren said. “People talk about the shoulders they stand on. So many people in the last 15 years can point to her work and contributions as examples of how to live your best life in serving others.”

Cothren laments the fact that there is not a street named after Scott King in Atlanta. In 2007, though, the Atlanta Public Schools opened up the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, one of the system’s highest-performing schools. In 2020, the all-girls school hit a 100% graduation rate for the second year in a row.

“Attending Coretta Scott King instilled in me what it meant to embody the characteristics that Mrs. King embodied,” said Lauren Hester, the class of 2020′s valedictorian and campus queen, who is now a freshman at Georgia Tech.

Lauren Hester, 2020 valedictorian and campus queen of Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, gave school announcements where she had to recite the school’s pledge and creed, culled from Coretta Scott King’s words. At right, King promoted and performed for "Freedom Concerts" in the 1960s to benefit the Civil Rights Movement. (Left: Contributed; Right: DeCasseres)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Every day from the 7th grade until she graduated, Hester did the school announcements in which she had to recite the school’s pledge and creed, culled from Scott King’s words. That meant even more during her senior year, as the nation dealt with a pandemic and increased racial tensions.

“Going to Coretta Scott King, I knew I had to be a leader. I had to be bold. I had to be strong. I had to be a changemaker and a norm breaker,” Hester said. “That means being ready to progress our society forward.”

Carrying on

On the 15th anniversary of the passing of Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King III reflects on the life and legacy of his mother.

Which is exactly what Coretta Scott King did.

Just four days after her husband’s death and a day before his funeral, Scott King traveled to Memphis — the site of his murder — to serve notice that his place at the front of the civil rights movement would not go unfilled.

Along with her two oldest children, Yolanda and Martin III, she led a column of 50,000 marchers through the streets of Memphis, before asking them: “How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society? How long will it take?”

“It takes a strong and unusual human being, man or woman, to take her children into that kind of danger,” King III said of that moment. “But she was undeterred. She was stronger than an ox.”

By the end of 1968, she started the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change to carry on her husband’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance to bring about positive social change.

In 1981, after more than a decade of fundraising and temporary housing, the center, with her husband’s crypt as its centerpiece, opened to the public.

“She created a cohesiveness around the work that he was doing and teaching,” Bernice King said. “She was very strategic in institutionalizing my father’s legacy and being a strong voice for social change across a lot of different lines. She understood the power of coalition building.”

A farewell

Coretta Scott King is flanked by (left) Bernice King and (right) Dexter King as they welcome her surprise visit to the Salute to Excellence Dinner in Atlanta on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2006. (W.A. BRIDGES Jr./AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Coretta Scott King’s last public appearance was Jan. 14, 2006, at the annual Salute to Greatness dinner in honor of her husband. Having suffered a stroke and heart attack the previous fall, she was wheeled into the ballroom in a wheelchair and taken to the head table, where she received a standing ovation.

The next day, Cothren, who had left the King Center in late 2004 after 23 years by her side, visited her for the last time.

“She whispered to me ‘Lynn, I love you and I am proud of you.’ We both were tearing up. I knew that was the last time I would see her,” Cothren said. When Scott King died, “I grieved really hard and I still do. It was a very painful time. I think about her every day.”

Coretta Scott King with her long-time special assistant, Lynn Cothren.

Credit: Courtesy Lynn Cothren

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Credit: Courtesy Lynn Cothren

Even though Scott King didn’t speak and appeared thin at the dinner, her death still came as a sudden shock.

The family had taken her to Mexico for privacy and no one knew she also had cancer. She had only checked in the Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito Beach on Jan. 26, four days before she died.

“I look at the date as the time that she decided that she was gonna go home and live with God,” King III said. “She told us that when dad was killed, God rewards those that serve him, and he brings them home for rest. I saw her transitioning to get some rest for all of the work that she had been doing.”

On the night of her death, President George W. Bush opened his State of the Union Address with a tribute: “Today our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream,” Bush said. “Tonight, we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue offered the Capitol Rotunda as a place for her body to lie in honor, the first for a Black Georgian and a woman. In 1968, then-Gov. Lester Maddox refused that offer to King Jr.

Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during the funeral service for her mother, Coretta Scott King at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006. (AP Photo/Jason Reed, Pool)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

More than 10,000 people ― including President Bush, three ex-presidents and a future president ― gathered at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to say a final goodbye.

More than 40 people sang or spoke at the eight-hour service.

Bernice King, the youngest of the King children and the only one who was with her in Mexico when she died, gave the eulogy, describing her mother’s last hours, saying she appeared to “wrestle with God,” then let go.

Yolanda Renee: A new legacy

Martin Luther King III (right), Arndrea Waters King and their daughter Yolanda Renee King (left) stand for a portrait at their residence in Atlanta, Georgia, Thursday, January 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

After his mother died, King III rarely visited the King Center — where both of his parents are entombed. It hurt too much.

Then he started to have his transformation.

The same year that his mother died, King III became the first of the siblings to get married.

In 2007, the King family’s oldest child, Yolanda, died.

A year later, King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, had the family’s first grandchild, Yolanda Renee King.

Yolanda Renee is 12 now, and just like her grandmother, King III said.

“I wish that my mother had the opportunity to meet Yolanda Renee,” King III said.

A legacy.

01/28/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Yolanda Renee King, the only grandchild of Martin Luther King Jr., sits for a portrait at her residence in Atlanta, Georgia, Thursday, January 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

“She has a lot of her grandmother in her,” King III said. “She often challenges me when I say something that she feels is wrong. Yolanda Renee has some drama in her.”

In 2018, a then nine-year-old Yolanda Renee burst onto the scene as a speaker at the March for Life Rally in Washington, D.C., demanding gun control. They found out two hours prior that she was going to be able to speak, but she refused her parents’ help and insistence that she jot down some notes.

“(Yolanda Renee) said, ‘I know what I’m she is going to say,” King III said. “It was something embedded in her head and her heart.”

In what King III called a “drop the mic moment,” Yolanda Renee introduced herself to the crowd of 200,000 people as the “granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.”

“My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of the skin, but the content of their character,” said Yolanda Renee. “I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”

In a Facebook post, Bernice King wrote: “My niece, Yolanda Renee King, truly represented the King family.”

Baby Girl

Today, 15 years after the passing of her mother, Bernice King said she still has her moments. The family will mark the day privately and will celebrate what would have Coretta Scott King’s 94th birthday on April 27.

Bernice was only five when her father died. She was raised by her mother. She remembers how every month her mother would spend hours picking out birthday cards to send to friends.

Or how she could call her mother whenever she was down. Or when she was sick, how her mother would drop everything to come to sit with her.

This is why she “smiles like a kid in a candy shop,” whenever someone wants to talk to her about her mother.

“She is my heart and soul,” Bernice King said. “When I am out and about now, especially during this pandemic, there are moments when I think about if my mom were still here. So, I can drive back to the house. Like I am still her little baby girl.”