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Coretta Scott King Dead at 78

From Associated Press

5:32 AM PST, January 31, 2006

ATLANTA — 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.

Markel Hutchins, a close family friend of the Kings, told The Associated Press he spoke early this morning with Bernice King, who confirmed her mother's passing.

Former Mayor Andrew Young said on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site that Bernice King found her mother at about 1 a.m.

Young, who was a former civil rights activist and was close to the King family, told NBC's "Today" show: "I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter 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."

Efforts by The Associated Press to reach the family were unsuccessful. They did not immediately return phone calls, but flags at the King Center were lowered to half-staff this morning.

King suffered a serious stroke and heart attack in 2005.

She was a supportive lieutenant to her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the most tumultuous days of the American civil rights movement. She had 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.

She worked to keep his ideology of equality for all people at the forefront of the nation's agenda. She goaded and pulled 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 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 King Jr.," 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, voting rights 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 earlier this month, 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, 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 enacting 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."

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