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'First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement' Remembered

By Hamil R.. Harris and Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 31, 2006; 3:06 PM

ATLANTA, Jan. 31 -- Coretta Scott King, who for three decades stood in the place of her slain husband, Martin Luther King Jr., as a bright flame and firm voice of racial justice, died Monday night, her family announced Tuesday.

King, 78, who lived in Atlanta, suffered a stroke in August but had made a brief public appearance on television Jan. 16, during a celebration of Martin Luther King Day.

Officials and family members said she died at a clinic in Mexico.

Her daughters, Bernice and Yolanda, were at the Santa Monica Health Institute, a holistic health center in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, south of San Diego, with their mother, King's sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, told the Associated Press. U.S. officials said they were working with the family to make arrangements for King's body to be returned to the United States.

The family released a statement saying, "We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country."

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced, but flags in Georgia were ordered today to be flown at half-staff in King's memory and Gov. Sonny Perdue offered the family the option of having her body lie in state in the state capitol building.

Universally known as the "first lady of the civil rights movement," King occupied a unique place in American society as the gentle and dignified heiress to the vast and fiery legacy left by her martyred husband.

Her face flashed across TV screens throughout Atlanta's sprawling airport Tuesday morning as the news of her death spread, and as it did, workers there stopped what they were doing to look up and remember.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), who knew King and her husband well, was waiting to catch a flight back to Washington, moved from group to group, consoling them and remembering her with them.

"Have you heard?" he said, gesturing to the TV screens. "She's gone. Coretta's dead.

"She loved me and I loved her," Lewis, a member of Congress from Atlanta, who worked with both King and her husband in the civil rights movement for many years, told a reporter. "She was the glue that held the civil rights movement together."

Fareed Hakeem, 39, grew up on Auburn street, near Rev. King's Ebenezer Baptist Church. "She meant a great deal to the people of Atlanta," he said. "I just hope people will realize what her legacy meant for this generation."

Her special stature brought forth tributes from across the country.

"Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Coretta Scott King," President Bush said in a statement released by the White House. "Mrs. King was a remarkable and courageous woman, and a great civil rights leader. She carried on the legacy of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including through her extraordinary work at the King Center. Mrs. King's lasting contributions to freedom and equality have made America a better and more compassionate nation."

"It's a bleak morning for me and for many people and yet it's a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was," poet Maya Angelou said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"She was a sister-friend to me, we called each other 'children sisters.' She was a great wife, obviously, and a wonderful mother and a great woman, a great American. When I think of great Americans she's one of the people I think of," Angelou said.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), said, "Her loss is shocking not just to the civil rights movement but to progressives throughout the country and the world."

"We will miss her," he told the Associated Press. "But she certainly picked up the baton when it was dropped by her husband's assassination and continued to move forward in the civil rights arena."

"She was truly the first lady of the human rights movement. The only thing worse than losing her is if we never had her," the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York said in a statement released to wire services. "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."

As Martin Luther King was the father of the civil rights movement, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), "she was the mother of that movement. They together were the force in this nation.

"In an area where our founding fathers failed -- founding fathers wrote slavery into the Constitution, we fought a civil war, but it wasn't really until we had Dr. King and Coretta Scott King in the '50s that awakened the conscience of the nation so the political leadership of the early '60s could begin what I call the march to progress, that of knocking down walls of discrimination on race, religion, ethnicity and gender, and disability. And we have benefited so much from their leadership and from their inspiration," Kennedy said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"A final point I want to mention is that I've had the good opportunity to get to know the children over the years, and I have seen the time that they have spent with their mother," said Kennedy, whose two slain brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), worked closely with King. "Their mother was not only a powerful and charismatic figure and leader for our time, but she helped those children grow up to be individuals with a sense of dignity, a sense of pride in their heritage, and their strong commitment to do something for someone else. I admire her for that, as well."

In a statement, the King family said: "We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country."

The family's statement said King died overnight.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who is close to the family, told NBC's "Today" show that King's daughter Bernice went in to wake her up last night but was unable to do so.

"Her spirit will remain with us just as her husband's has," said Young.

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