Video: First lady of civil rights dies

updated 1/31/2006 8:32:06 PM ET 2006-02-01T01:32:06

Coretta Scott King, who worked to keep her husband’s dream alive with a chin-held-high grace and serenity that made her a powerful symbol of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s creed of brotherhood and nonviolence, died Tuesday. She was 78.

King died in her sleep during the night at an alternative medicine clinic in Mexico, her family said.

In a statement released Tuesday, the King family said she in Mexico “for observation and consideration of treatment for ovarian cancer. She was considered terminal by physicians in the United States. Mrs. King and her family wanted to explore other options.”

King was partially paralyzed and suffering from cancer when she arrived last week at the clinic where she died, clinic doctors said.

They gave the cause of death as respiratory failure, related both to a serious stroke she suffered in August and the cancer they said was diagnosed last year.

King checked into the Santa Monica Health Institute in the Mexican beach resort of Rosarito, 16 miles south of San Diego, on Thursday under another name. The doctors said they did not know who she was until her medical records arrived on Friday, and they never began any treatment because of her condition.

"She came here with half her body paralyzed," Dr. Rafael Cedeno, the doctor who was overseeing her case, said at a news conference. "She was in really bad condition."

Last appearance two weeks ago
Just two weeks ago, she made her first public appearance in a year on the eve of her late husband’s birthday.

Arrangements were being made to fly the body to Atlanta.

News of her death led to tributes to King across Atlanta, including a moment of silence in the Georgia Capitol and piles of flowers placed at the tomb of her slain husband. Flags at the King Center — the institute devoted to the civil rights leader’s legacy — were lowered to half-staff.

“She wore her grief with grace. She exerted her leadership with dignity,” the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King’s husband in 1957.

Rice, others hail civil rights icon
In a statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “the United States and the world have lost a champion of human rights. Mrs. King was one of the pioneers in our country's fight for equality and justice for all its citizens. Her courageous stand alongside Dr. King during a time of tremendous struggle for America was one of our greatest examples of selfless dedication to the good of all Americans.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King’s top aides, said Coretta Scott King’s fortitude rivaled that of her husband. “She was strong, if not stronger than he was,” Young said.

Coretta Scott King was a supportive lieutenant to her husband during the most dangerous and tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, and after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, she carried on his work while also raising their four children.

“I’m more determined than ever that my husband’s dream will become a reality,” the young widow said soon after his slaying.

Pressed for national holiday
She pushed and goaded politicians for more than a decade to have her husband’s birthday observed as a national holiday, achieving success in 1986. In 1969 she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and used it to confront hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism.

“The center enables us to go out and struggle against the evils in our society,” she often said.

She also accused movie and TV companies, video arcades, gun manufacturers and toy makers of promoting violence.

King became a symbol in her own right of her husband’s struggle for peace and brotherhood, presiding with a quiet, stoic dignity over seminars and conferences.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with her husband when he was assassinated, said Tuesday that she understood that every time her husband left home, there was the chance he might not come back. Jackson pronounced her a “freedom fighter.”

“Like all great champions she learned to function with pain and keep serving,” he said, adding: “She kept marching. She did not flinch.”

In Washington, President Bush hailed her as “a remarkable and courageous woman and a great civil rights leader.”

After her stroke, King missed the annual King celebration in Atlanta two weeks ago but appeared with her children at an awards dinner a few days earlier, smiling from her wheelchair but not speaking. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Despite her repeated calls for unity among civil rights groups, her own children have been divided over whether to sell the King Center to the National Park Service and let the family focus less on grounds maintenance and more on King’s message. Two of the four children were strongly against such a move.

Flags at half-staff in Georgia
Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered flags at all state buildings to be flown at half-staff and offered to allow King’s body to lie in repose at the Georgia Capitol. There was no immediate response to the offer, the governor’s office said.

Video: Remembering Coretta Scott King King died at Santa Monica Health Institute in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, south of San Diego, said her sister, Edythe Scott Bagley of Cheyney, Pa. She had gone to California to rest and be with family, according to Young.

Coretta Scott was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music and planning on a singing career when a friend introduced her to King, a young Baptist minister studying 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, in 1953, they did.

A move to Montgomery
The couple moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and helped lead the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks set in motion when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. With that campaign, King began enacting his philosophy of nonviolent, direct social action.

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. She marched beside him from Selma, Ala., into Montgomery in 1965 on the triumphant drive for a voting rights law.

Only days after his death, she flew to Memphis with three of her children to lead thousands marching in honor of her slain husband and to plead for his cause.

“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.”

Her husband’s womanizing had been an open secret during the height of the civil rights movement. In January, a new book, “At Canaan’s Edge” by Taylor Branch, put his infidelity back in the spotlight. It said that not long before he was assassinated, King confessed a long-standing affair to his wife while she was recovering from a hysterectomy.

The King family, especially Coretta Scott King and her father-in-law, Martin Luther King Sr., were highly visible in 1976 when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter ran for president. When an integration dispute at Carter’s Plains church created a furor, Coretta Scott King campaigned at Carter’s side the next day.

She later was named by Carter to serve as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, where Young was the ambassador.

Favored trial for husband’s assailant
In 1997, she spoke out in favor of a push to grant a trial for James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to killing her husband and then recanted.

BONO KING
W.A. Harewood  /  AP file
Rights activist and U2 singer Bono kisses Coretta Scott King after a news conference in Atlanta in this January 2004 file photo.
“Even if no new light is shed on the facts concerning my husband’s assassination, at least we and the nation can have the satisfaction of knowing that justice has run its course in this tragedy,” she told a judge.

The trial never took place; Ray died in 1998.

King was born April 27, 1927, in Perry County, Ala. Her father ran a country store. To help her family during the Depression, young Coretta picked cotton. Later, she worked as a waitress to earn her way through Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Passing the torch
In 1994, she stepped down as head of the King Center, passing the job to son Dexter, who in turn passed the job on to her other son, Martin III, in 2004. Dexter continued to serve as the center’s chief operating officer.

Martin III also has served on the Fulton County (Ga.) commission and as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, co-founded by his father in 1957. Daughter Yolanda became an actress and the youngest child, Bernice, became a Baptist minister.

In 1993, on the 25th anniversary of her husband’s death, King said the war in Vietnam that her husband opposed “has been replaced by an undeclared war on our central cities, a war being fought by gangs with guns for drugs.”

“The value of life in our cities has become as cheap as the price of a gun,” she said.

In London, she stood in 1969 in the same carved pulpit in St. Paul’s Cathedral where her husband preached five years earlier.

“Many despair at all the evil and unrest and disorder in the world today,” she preached, “but I see a new social order and I see the dawn of a new day.”

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