Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)

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Coretta Scott King in 1986

Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., died in her sleep early Tuesday morning at the age of 78. She had worked tirelessly after her husband's death in 1968 to carry on his legacy and only recently began to slow down her efforts. Having suffered a stroke in August 2005, King made a surprising appearance at a children's program in mid-January during events surrounding the annual commemoration of King's birthday. Passive and regal in a wheelchair, King did not speak but welcomed a line of children to her side.

King's official cause of death is listed as cardio-respiratory failure, cerebral vascular illness and ovarian cancer, with her heart and lung failures owing in part to the stroke. Her cancerous condition had not been previously made public, and she was diagnosed last fall, according to family friends. That condition, deemed inoperable by doctors consulted in the United States, led King's family to check her into an alternative medicine clinic in Mexico on January 26 under an assumed name. No funeral or memorial arrangements had been announced, as King's family escorted her body back to Atlanta early Wednesday morning.

She leaves four children, Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice. Flags in Atlanta began flying at half-mast shortly after the news was circulated of her passing. "We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," her children noted Tuesday morning in a statement.

After her husband's slaying in 1968, King worked to establish the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which opened as it stands today in 1982, a complex that includes King's tomb, his boyhood home and the historical Ebenezer Baptist Church, part of which is a federal historic park project. The roots of the center started a year after her husband's assassination, begun in the basement of Dr. King's home.

She also successfully fought for a national holiday on King's birthday, which was established in 1985, and was observed this year on Jan. 16. A monument to her husband is also being pursued in Washington, D.C., on the national mall.

"My husband, Martin Luther King, Jr,, was a man who had hoped to be a Baptist preacher to a large, Southern, urban congregation," she wrote in the introduction to her 1983 book, 'The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.' "Instead, by the time he died in 1968, he had led millions of people into shattering forever the Southern system of segregation of the races.... Above all, he brought a new and higher dimension of human dignity to black people's lives."

Coretta and King met in 1952 in Boston where she was studying music at the New England Conservatory, having already studied at Antioch College in Ohio. King had been pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Boston University. But both of them were originally from the South. She grew up in Alabama, he in Atlanta, and they married the next year, in 1953. They moved together to Montgomery, Alabama where King began his work as a pastor for the Dexter Avenue Church.

Both were struck by the specific injustice of the segregation of the Montgomery City Bus Lines, which became a national issue when Rosa Parks made her stand in that city in 1955. After that incident, the Dexter Avenue church became a growing meeting place for civil rights activists. Soon, King's life and legacy began to take shape in a public sphere, while at home four children would soon enter the their household.

"We began getting death threats and abusive phone calls. One night, while Martin was at a mass rally, I was at home with a friend and our first child, two-month-old Yolanda, when a bomb hit our front porch and exploded," Coretta recalled. Later in the book she wrote, "Martin was now a hero to America's black people. Shortly after the [Montgomery bus boycott], TIME magazine ran a cover story on Martin, calling him 'the scholarly Negro Baptist minister who in little more than a year has risen from nowhere to become one of the nation's remarkable leaders of men."

Coretta summed up her and her husband's struggle: "By reaching into and beyond ourselves and tapping the transcendent ethic of love, she shall overcome these evils. Love, truth, and the courage to do what is right should be our own guideposts on this lifelong journey."