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Coretta Scott King dead at 78

By MARIA SAPORTA, MAE GENTRY
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/31/06

Coretta Scott King was in Mexico for cancer treatment when she died late Monday, her family said today.

A statement released this afternoon by her four children said, "Mrs. King was in Mexico for observation and consideration of treatment for ovarian cancer. She was considered terminal by physicians in the United States. She and the family wanted to explore other options. She died at approximately 11:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time."

Mrs. King, 78, who suffered a heart attack and major stroke last year, had traveled to Mexico last week for treatment at a holistic hospital in Rosarito Beach south of San Diego. Her body was found Monday by her daughter Bernice. A spokesman at Hospital Santa Monica confirmed Mrs. King died at the center.

In April, she was diagnosed with a heart ailment and suffered a major stroke and heart attack in August. By fall, she had been told she had ovarian cancer.

She lived twice as long as her husband, who was 39 when he was assassinated in 1968. And she died on her son Dexter's 45th birthday.

She was in pain, but we were just focusing on the positive," said her sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, 81, of Cheney, Pa. "She's at peace now."

Mrs. King was mourned Tuesday not only as the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but as an inspiration and a woman of grace and dignity.

Christine King Farris, the sister-in-law of Coretta Scott King, said the family is sorting out details. "We will bring her back here," Farris said.

As tributes from the world poured in, a crowd formed at the King Center on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. Many brought flowers and placed them at the reflecting pool near Dr. King's tomb.

By late-morning, the crowd of mourners at the King Center had grown to about 100.

Among the mourners was a weeping Mildred Neal, the single mother of an 11-year-old son who said she wanted to "pay my respects to her strength, her courage."

Jesse Ehnert, a consultant from Atlanta, brought his 6-month-old daughter, Melia, snuggly bundled in a yellow blanket in a baby carriage.

"I wanted to pay my respects to what she and Dr. King accomplished," he said.

Among those who brought flowers was Vernon Jones, DeKalb County chief executive officer.

"The angels came to take her home," Jones said. "I could not be what I am today without the legacy of Coretta Scott King."

As word began to spread shortly after 7 a.m., the sad duty of bringing the American flag at the King Center fell to security guard Richard Cheatham.

He set the flag at half-staff about 7:30.

"It's just sad to see her gone," said Cheatham.

Gov. Sonnny Perdue ordered flags at all state facililties lowered to half-staff until sunset on the day of Mrs. King's funeral. The service has not yet been scheduled.

Coretta Scott King was one of the most influential civil rights leaders of our time," said Perdue. "While her husband was the public face of the civil rights movement, no person is that successful without strong support at home. Mary and I mourn the passing of this dynamic leader."

Last spring, Coretta King was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which causes the heart to quiver instead of beat regularly. The condition led to a major stroke and a minor heart attack on Aug. 16. She was trying to recover from the stroke, which impaired her right side and speech, at the time of her death.

Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered flags on all state buildings and grounds at half-staff in memory of Mrs. King. The flags will remain at half staff until sunset the night of her funeral.

"Coretta Scott King was one of the most influential civil rights leaders of our time," said Perdue. Mrs. King was a gracious and kind woman whose calm, measured words rose above the din of political rhetoric. For decades, she proudly bore the torch of her husband's legacy. Now she has passed it on to a new generation to keep the dream alive. Mary and I mourn the passing of this dynamic leader."

"It so significant that we would lose another giant at the heels of losing Ms. Rosa Parks," said the Rev. Harold Middlebrooks, a Knoxville, Tenn., preacher who lived with members of the King family during the Rev. King's student days at Morehouse College and as a civil rights worker.

"Both of them could not be out there on the front lines," he said. "Somebody had to rear the children. That was her role. She saw that that was her role and she did it. At the same time, she was very supportive of her husband."

"I am very saddened by the suddenness of Mrs. King's death," said Evelyn Lowery, president of SCLC/WOMEN. "I am sure that she is much relieved, where she is now. Her last days were not that pleasant.

Lowery said she had seen Mrs. King over the Christmas holidays. The world saw her for the last time in January, when she made a surprise appearance at the King Salute to Greatness dinner.

"She looked so radiant and beautiful. We just hugged and hugged when we saw each other. She couldn't speak, but we were able to communicate," Lowery said. "She was such a strong person. Such a dignified person committed to the movement. She was a leader in her own right."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a family friend, called Mrs. King's death a "monumental" loss.

" For those of us that were too young to get to know Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. very well, we got to know Coretta Scott King as a compassionate, caring, yet firm matriarch of the movement for justice. She was kind and gentle with impeccable grace and dignity, yet firm and strong and immovable under issues that she and her husband committed their lives to," said Sharpton.

During the battle to desegregate the South, Coretta Scott King walked alongside her husband. After he was assassinated in April 1968, she stepped out of his shadow and became an internationally respected advocate of justice, peace and human rights.

She worked tirelessly to spread her husband's message of fighting for equality through nonviolent struggle.

Owen Lawson, a manager for Cardinal Health Systems, came to the King Center after hearing the news. He stood for a few moments in silent meditation at the reflecting pool.

"It's not a sad day, not really," said Lawson, a 1992 graduate of Morehouse College. "It's a day to remember Mrs. King and Dr. King and all that they accomplished."

Nickeya Weathers, 29, lives around the corner from the King Center on Auburn Avenue. "I was shocked," Weathers said. "Everybody thought she would get better."

Weathers started crying while standing next to the reflection pool at the center.

"I feel like this was everybody's mother in the fact that her family was so important," she said. "It's just sad."

Said John Evans, who was taking a break from his job at the Parkview Manor Nursing and Rehab Center across Auburn Avenue from the King Center: "Boy, it's really a hurting feeling. My joy just went down when I heard about it because she was such a wonderful person for this community."

Four days after the Nobel Peace Prize winner was killed in Memphis, Coretta Scott King delivered a speech in which she declared, "We must carry on because this is the way he would have wanted it to have been. ... We are going to continue his work."

She spent the next 37 years doing just that.

— Staff writers Add Seymour, Bill Montgomery and Ernie Suggs contributed to this report.

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