February 1, 2006

Civil Rights Icon Coretta Scott King Dies at 78

By Karen Jacobs

ATLANTA -- Coretta Scott King, who surged to the front of the fight for racial equality in America after her husband Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, has died at age 78, friends and family said on Tuesday.

Mrs. King, who had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, died late on Monday in Mexico, where she had been seeking possible treatment, a family spokeswoman told Reuters.

"Mrs. King was in Mexico for observation and consideration of treatment for ovarian cancer," the spokeswoman said. "She was considered terminal by physicians in the United States. She and the family wanted to explore other options."

Funeral arrangements were not expected to be known until after Mrs. King's children returned to Atlanta with her body, expected early on Wednesday, the family spokeswoman said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that King died at Hospital Santa Monica, a health center in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where many Americans seek alternative and sometimes controversial treatments. The hospital declined comment.

"Her daughter was with her at the time she passed," said Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, pastor for King's youngest child, Bernice.

King, often called the first lady of the civil rights movement, suffered a debilitating stroke and heart attack in August. She was last seen in public on January 14 at a dinner marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, where she received a standing ovation from a crowd of 1,500 people.

By fall, Mrs. King had been told she had ovarian cancer, the Atlanta newspaper reported on its Web site.

Her steely determination, grace and class won her admirers inside and outside the civil rights movement. On Tuesday, accolades poured in from leaders in politics and business.


President George W. Bush began his State of the Union address by praising King, drawing a standing ovation.

"Today our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream," Bush said. "Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken from her so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King."

Former President Jimmy Carter called her "a mainstay of the movement for nonviolent political change," and former President Bill Clinton said Mrs. King was "a giant in the fight for equal rights for all Americans."

Joseph Lowery, one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest aides who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the slain civil rights leader, told a news conference in Atlanta that her memory will live on in the hearts of people who love liberty.

Coretta Scott King played a back-up role in the civil rights movement until her husband was gunned down on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4, 1968.

Mrs. King, who was in Atlanta at the time, learned of the murder in a telephone call from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a call she later wrote, "I seemed subconsciously to have been waiting for all of our lives."

As she recalled in her autobiography "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.," Mrs. King felt she had to step fully into the civil rights movement after her husband's assassination.

She created a memorial and a forum in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The center has archives containing more than 2,000 King speeches and is built around the King crypt and its eternal flame.

Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, near Marion, Alabama. Spending most of her early years on a farm, she saw little prejudice until she was sent into town to attend Lincoln High School, a black school in the segregated South.

"It was awful," she said of living in Marion. "Every Saturday we would hear about some black man getting beat up and nothing was done about it."


Her father built a small trucking business but his success began to irritate poor whites, she said, and after harassment someone burned down the Scott home on Thanksgiving night 1942.

"I guess I was being prepared for my role when I was growing up because when we were young children my father's life was in danger," Mrs. King once told Reuters. "We were afraid he was going to be killed.

"A white man threatened him and he never ran. He was fearless," she said.

After graduating in 1951 from majority white Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Coretta Scott studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Martin Luther King, who was studying for his doctorate in theology at Boston University, had told a mutual friend he was looking for a wife. The friend gave him her phone number but when he came calling she was not impressed.

"I saw this green car coming up the street and this short man," she said in an interview. "He leaned over to open the door, and when I got in the car I saw this very young looking man. I thought, 'Oh my God, I expected to see a man but this is a boy."'

When he began to speak, however, she changed her mind.

She never doubted King would battle the status quo. "Even at the time we were courting," she said, "Martin was deeply concerned -- and indignant -- with the plight of the Negro in the United States."

They were married at her parents' home on June 18, 1953, and had four children: Yolanda Denise, born in 1955; Martin Luther III, born in 1957; Bernice Albertine, born in 1963; and Dexter Scott, who turned 45 the day his mother died.