Portrait of dignity: Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006

The widow of the late Rev. Martin Luther King was an activist who after his death founded the King Center and worked to make her husband's birthday a national holiday. In her life she received innumerable honors and was a familiar, respected presence in Atlanta. Her funeral was attended by four of five living presidents. She is buried beside her husband at the King Center.

Credit: OZIER MUHAMMAD/ New York Times

Credit: OZIER MUHAMMAD/ New York Times

This AJC article originally appeared on Feb. 1, 2006

With her husband dead from an assassin's bullet and not yet buried, Coretta Scott King served notice that his place at the front of the civil rights movement would not go unfilled. When he died April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been in Memphis supporting a strike of mostly black sanitation workers. Four days later, on the eve of his funeral, a calm and dignified Coretta Scott King headed a column of 50,000 silently marching workers and supporters.

"How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society ,” she asked that day. "How long will it take?"

It was clear that although the civil rights movement's towering figure was gone, in his shadow had toiled a figure every bit as strong, every bit as committed, every bit as courageous — and every bit as ready to forge America's awakening on race and social justice.

A coterie of the movement's leaders had always known the minister's wife was capable of this — and more — but the wider world was only beginning to learn.

"She was a freedom fighter,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of her husband's lieutenants. "She marched in Birmingham. She marched in Selma. When he was killed, she kept marching for workers' rights. She was a freedom fighter in the league of Winnie Mandela and Shirley Chisolm."

King died in her sleep late Monday in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. She was 78.

King's rise to the leadership of her husband's movement did not surprise those who knew her well. Her resume read like a laundry list of a person born to prominence — even as she exemplified the virtuous wife-and-mother expected from women of her generation.

Born in Alabama, she left the segregated South for elite universities in Ohio and Boston, where she studied to become a classically trained singer and wound up an activist. She was even a delegate to a political convention.

Once married, she marched alongside her husband and sang to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

After her husband's death in 1968, King founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and led the fight to make her husband's birthday a national holiday.

She became an advocate for peace and human rights and met with presidents and world leaders. Decades after her husband spent time in jail protesting injustice, she was arrested for fighting against apartheid in South Africa.

Well into her 70s, she traveled the globe to speak against racial and economic injustice, promote the rights of the powerless and poor, and advocate for religious freedom, full employment, health care, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and AIDS awareness.

Not every chapter in her life was successful or fruitful. The King Center slipped into disrepair and foundered, and its future is now the subject of dispute among her children. Efforts to raise money from her husband's papers, writings and image have met with withering criticism. She regretted that she never became a grandmother.

Still, she was beloved by many.

After her debilitating stroke and heart attack in August, she made a surprise appearance last month during the King Center's annual Salute to Greatness Dinner in downtown Atlanta.

Aides wheeled her into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, triggering a standing ovation from the hundreds of surprised guests. She kissed her family, waved and smiled, but said nothing. Many in the crowd dabbed away tears.

In a news conference talking about his longtime friend, Andrew Young said she bore public scrutiny well, never lost her poise or showed anger, even in the face of sometimes harsh criticism.

"She lived a graceful and beautiful life,” he said.

Never remarried

For many, King was close to royalty, from the regal way she carried herself to how others perceived her. Her image was frozen in the public's consciousness in part because of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken at her husband's funeral. Beneath her black veil, she seemed dignified and stoic even as she consoled her grief-stricken 5-year-old daughter, Bernice.

As a public figure, she could not venture out without being swamped by admirers. Not surprisingly, she picked her friends carefully and treasured her time with them.

Lynn Cothren, her former special assistant of 23 years, recalled her habit of late-night phone conversations. Their last one, a few weeks before her stroke, went on more than three hours.

"We talked about everything,” he said. "We talked about the world and this unjust war that we're in. She asked about my partner. We talked about events in her life. In one of the last conversations, she was telling me about what a tremendous time she had at Oprah's party and the beautiful earrings she got."

Yet she was the woman who bought pantsuits off the rack and did her own grocery shopping. When TV personality Oprah Winfrey gave her an on-air makeover in May 2003, her coif emerged feathered and flipped. But she quickly reverted to the staid curls she'd worn for decades.

Even after years of pleading from friends and family to move from her crumbling neighborhood in Vine City, it took the formidable Winfrey to make it happen with a paid-for condo in a Buckhead tower.

Before her stroke, Coretta Scott King normally began her day at 7 a.m. with prayer, meditation and exercise. After she was released from the hospital, her doctors put her on a fitness and rehabilitation regimen that required her to work on occupational, speech and physical therapy for three hours a day, six days a week.

While King's 1968 assassination brought an end to their marriage after only 15 years, Coretta Scott King never remarried and spent her last 38 years carrying and burnishing her husband's legacy.

'I was always very strong'

Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, in Marion, Ala., to Bernice McMurry Scott and Obadiah Scott, who farmed his own land and owned a truck, which he used to haul logs and timber for the local sawmill. Bernice Scott was a homemaker. Although her family was not poor, Coretta Scott joined hired hands picking cotton in the fields of rural Marion.

"If you made four or five dollars in the course of a season, that was pretty good money in those Depression days. I remember one special year when I made seven dollars picking cotton ,” King wrote in her 1969 autobiography, "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr." "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."

Young said Coretta Scott King learned about racism in a more tangible and brutal way than did her husband, who grew up in relatively tolerant Atlanta. Over the years, Obadiah Scott's trucking company, sawmill and grocery store in Marion were burned, Young said.

As a child, while her white neighbors rode a bus to a nearby school, Coretta Scott walked five miles to the one-room Crossroads School for blacks.

But she did well in school, excelled in music and became the valedictorian of Lincoln High School's class of 1945. She accepted a scholarship to the Quaker-influenced Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and quickly took an interest in equal rights.

She joined the Antioch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the college's Race Relations and Civil Liberties committees. In 1948, she was a delegate to the founding convention of the Young Progressives organization.

"She was very politicized early on in her life,” said Digby Diehl, a California writer who was collaborating with King on her unpublished memoirs. "She was far more politically aware than her husband was at that time when they met. I think he became very sophisticated and very aware."

After graduating from Antioch in 1951 with a bachelor of arts degree in music, she accepted a scholarship to continue her musical training at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

There, she met a man who, at least at first, didn't impress her much.

Lunch changed everything

In Boston, Martin Luther King Jr. was a theology student studying for his doctorate. He asked a mutual friend for Coretta Scott's phone number. When he called her, he identified himself as "M.L. King Jr."

They met for lunch the next day. "My first thought was, 'How short he seems, ' and the second was, 'How unimpressive he looks, ' " she wrote.

Things quickly changed over lunch.

"I still remember everything I was wearing that day... Martin looked at me very carefully. At the time, I was wearing bangs that had a natural wave, and my hair was long. He liked that and said so ,” she wrote. "In those few minutes I had forgotten about Martin being short and had completely revised my first impression. He radiated charm. When he talked, he grew in stature. ... I knew immediately that he was special."

They married on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents' house in a ceremony conducted by his father.

After Coretta Scott King received a degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory, the young couple moved to Montgomery in September 1954 when Martin Luther King Jr. was named pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Having traveled the country and studied in Boston, the new Mrs. King was not eager to return South, especially to Alabama.

"I knew the situation there only too well,” she wrote. "I knew, from my own life, that in this city, living in its memories of its glory as the first capital of the Confederacy, the stifling hood of segregation at its worst soon would drop over us."

Within 15 months of their arrival, the couple now with an infant daughter, Yolanda, found themselves thrust into events that led to the modern civil rights movement.

On Dec. 1, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The movement chose 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. as its leader.

If Coretta Scott King had ever assumed she would lead the quiet life of a minister's wife, it didn't last.

On the evening of Jan. 30, 1956, while her husband spoke at Ralph David Abernathy's First Baptist Church, Coretta Scott King was sitting at home with a friend and daughter Yolanda. They heard a loud thump on the porch. She tried to run to the back of the house.

"We moved fast — not through the hall, which would have taken us near the sound, but straight back through the guest bedroom,” she wrote. "We were in the middle of it when there was a thunderous blast. Then smoke and the sound of breaking glass."

The bomb blew the porch off their home. King, the friend and baby Yolanda narrowly escaped.

Nobel Peace Prize

Martin Luther King's leadership in Montgomery catapulted him to national prominence and made him the de facto leader of black America throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Often Coretta Scott King, in her cat glasses, was right by her husband's side at marches and rallies, including the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

She was with her husband in 1957 when he traveled to Ghana to mark that country's independence. In 1958, they traveled to Mexico and witnessed what she called the wide gulf — similar to that in America — between extreme wealth and desperate poverty. In 1959, the couple spent a month in India on a pilgrimage of sites associated with King's philosophical mentor, Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1964, she was by her husband's side in Oslo, Norway, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. "Though we were very happy, both Martin and I realized the tremendous responsibility that this placed on him ,” she wrote in her autobiography.

"This was, of course the greatest recognition that had come to him, but we both knew that to accomplish what the prize really implied, we still had a long way to go. It was a great tribute, but an even more awesome burden. I felt pride and joy, and pain too, when I thought of the added responsibilities my husband must bear; and it was my burden, too."

But at least for one night she wanted to put those burdens aside.

While in Paris, Andrew Young recalled, Coretta Scott King wanted to go to a dance hall with her husband's mother, Alberta King and sister, Christine King Farris.

King, a Baptist preacher, protested, saying he couldn't be seen there, and she shouldn't either. But his wife went without him.

"It's the only time I ever saw him get upset,” said Young. "He was a typical jealous husband."

When the Kings returned to Atlanta, city leaders held a banquet in his honor at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel. It was one of the first times that blacks and whites of all classes in Atlanta openly mingled and ate together at such a major event. At the end of the evening, 1,500 people held hands and sang "We Shall Overcome."

"It was tremendously moving — the spirit of it,” she wrote. "We felt, for that night at least, it was really 'black and white together' in Atlanta."

In the 1960s, as her husband grew in stature, so did Coretta Scott King.

She conceived and performed a series of critically acclaimed Freedom Concerts, combining poetry, narration and music to tell the story of the civil rights movement and raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dorothy Height, chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, said she first met and heard King at one of the Freedom Concerts at Town Hall in New York City.

"She did a beautiful concert, and I think all of us were very proud to be a part of it ,” Height said.

In a show of independence, she was a liaison to international peace and justice organizations even before her husband took a public stand against the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. Later, it was Martin Luther King's stance on the Vietnam War that shifted some opinion against him. Critics and some supporters argued that he should remain focused solely on civil rights.

But much of her time was spent as a mother. While her husband traveled the country, she often remained home with their children — Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott and Bernice Albertine.

And although historians have validated the reports of her husband's extramarital affairs over the years, she never wavered. She told an interviewer in 1993 that she had not a single shred of evidence any infidelity ever occurred and was sure if any had, her husband would have told her.

"And I am not a fool,” she said for apparent emphasis. "I am a wise woman."

'Her shoulder was his pillow'

On April 4, 1968, having just returned from taking daughter Yolanda shopping for Easter, King got a telephone call from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had been deputized to tell her that her husband had been shot.

"It hit me hard ... that the call I seemed subconsciously to have been waiting for all our lives had come ,” she said in her autobiography.

Jackson had told her only that her husband had been shot; it was later that she learned he had died from the wounds.

But Jackson said Tuesday that King was not fooled by the incomplete report.

"Their home had already been bombed, he was stabbed in New York, bricked in Chicago. He was the object of hate,” Jackson said. "So she was aware of his circumstances as his companion, a wife and a mother.

"Her shoulder was his pillow. Her ears were his listening post."

At the funeral, clutching their youngest child, Bernice, Coretta Scott King became yet another 1960s widow who taught the world about public stoicism in the face of incredible and private grief.

"She was a mixture of regal bearing and grace and an uncompromising freedom fighter ,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said. People "saw her in her regality and aura and didn't realize that in her heart was a woman who believed what her husband fought for. She didn't walk behind her husband, she walked beside him."

After her husband's death, she devoted her energy to fulfilling his work. Only months after her husband's death, she created the King Center as a living memorial to his life and dream.

In 1981, after more than a decade of fund-raising and temporary housing, the center, with her husband's crypt as its centerpiece, opened to the public. It is within the 23-acre national historic site that includes Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his father were pastors.

As founding president, chair and CEO of the King Center, King set out to provide local, national and international programs in an attempt to train thousands of people in her husband's philosophy and methods.

But the King Center's history has been riddled with contradiction, and in many regards, it never lived up to its incredible potential. During the past few years, under the leadership of her sons, the facility has crumbled, while educational and advocacy programming became nonexistent. The center is now in need of more than $11 million in repairs, and at least two federal agencies are investigating its use of grant money. The children are in the process of deciding whether to sell the facility to the federal government.

Pushing for the holiday

Perhaps King's greatest legacy will be her successful campaign to establish the third Monday in January as a holiday honoring her husband, the country's only national holiday recognizing an American citizen.

Four days after Dr. King's death, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) submitted the first legislation to commemorate the Rev. King's birthday, but winning approval took another 15 years.

President Ronald Reagan opposed the King holiday on fiscal grounds, arguing that giving federal workers a 10th annual holiday would cost the government about $225 million in lost wages alone. But he signed it into law Nov. 2, 1983.

"She really inspired and marshaled all of the forces that made the holiday possible, all the way to when John Conyers introduced it; encouraging Stevie Wonder to participate and encouraging the SCLC and others,” said Lloyd Davis, the former executive director of the Martin Luther King Holiday Commission. Added Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University: "I don't think people give her enough credit for doing something very few people have done. If she hadn't been as dedicated and energetic as she was, the King Center wouldn't exist and the King holiday wouldn't exist."

'She was a real activist'

Her work stretched beyond Auburn Avenue, however.

King received honorary doctorates from more than 60 colleges and universities; wrote three books and a nationally syndicated column; and has served on and helped found dozens of organizations, including the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation and the Black Leadership Roundtable.

The Coretta Scott King Award is presented annually by the American Library Association to a black author and a black illustrator for their outstanding inspirational and educational contributions published during the previous year.

"She was a real activist. She had one of the most keen, aggressive social political minds that I have ever talked to. She was really committed to world peace, really committed to racial equality, really committed to civil disobedience and nonviolence. She was not just the woman he went home to. She was the one who shaped his ideas and activism and she single-handedly maintained his legacy ,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said.

But in 2005, Coretta Scott King's legendary drive and stamina started to wane. A heart condition slowed her down and led to at least three strokes. The last one, on Aug. 16, severely weakened the right side of her body and left her unable to speak — only to sing as she had done in her youth.

Even in good health, King could have stayed out of the leadership roles, but that was not her choice, activist Dick Gregory said.

"She could have said 'I paid my dues.' She could have said, 'I lost my husband, my children lost a father.' But she didn't, and that is why she has been so blessed,” Gregory said in an interview following her stroke.

"I believe that there is a plan and a purpose for each person's life and that there are forces working in the universe to bring about good and to create a community of love and brotherhood,” she wrote in her autobiography. "Those who can attune themselves to these forces — to God's purpose — can become special instruments of His will."

Coretta Scott King is survived by Yolanda Denise King of Los Angeles and the Rev. Bernice Albertine King of Atlanta, and two sons, Martin Luther King III of Atlanta and Dexter Scott King of Malibu, Calif. She is also survived by a sister, Edythe Bagley of Cheney, Pa., and a brother, Obie Scott of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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