February 1, 2006
Coretta Scott King, a Civil Rights Icon, Dies at 78
By PETER APPLEBOME
Coretta Scott King, known first as the wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr., then as his widow, then as an avid proselytizer for his vision of
racial peace and nonviolent social change, died Monday at a hospital in
Mexico. She was 78.
The primary cause of death was "insufficient cardio-respiratory," which
simply means her heart and breathing stopped, said Dr. Carlos Guerrero
Tejada, who certified her death. The underlying causes were cerebral
vascular disease and ovarian cancer, according to the death certificate.
Mrs. King died at Hospital Santa Mónica in Rosarito, Mexico, about 16 miles
south of San Diego. She was admitted to the hospital last Thursday, said her
sister, Edythe Scott Bagley. Mrs. Bagley said Mrs. King's body would be
returned to her home, Atlanta, for entombment next to her husband, whose
crypt is at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center there.
Mrs. King had been in failing health after a stroke and a heart attack last
August. She appeared at a dinner honoring her husband on Jan. 14 but did not
Andrew Young, a former United Nations ambassador and longtime family friend,
said at a news conference yesterday morning that Mrs. King died in her
"She was a woman born to struggle," Mr. Young said, "and she has struggled
and she has overcome." Mrs. King rose from rural poverty in Heiberger, Ala.,
and became an international symbol of the civil rights movement of the
1960's. She was an advocate for women's rights, the struggle against
apartheid in South Africa, and other social and political issues.
In 1952, she was studying music at the New England Conservatory of Music in
Boston when she met a young graduate student in philosophy, who, on their
first date, told her: "The four things that I look for in a wife are
character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all." A
year later she and Dr. King, then a young minister from a prominent Atlanta
family, were married, beginning a remarkable partnership that ended with Dr.
King's assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Mrs. King did not hesitate to pick up his mantle, marching before her
husband was even buried at the head of the striking garbage workers he had
gone to Memphis to champion. She went on to lead the effort for a national
holiday in his honor and to found the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for
Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta, dedicated both to scholarship and to
In addition to dealing with her husband's death, which left her with four
young children, Mrs. King faced other trials and controversies. She was at
times viewed as chilly and aloof by others in the civil rights movement. The
King Center was criticized as competing for funds and siphoning energy from
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King had helped
found. In recent years, the center had been widely viewed as adrift,
characterized by squabbling within the family and a focus more on Dr. King's
legacy than on continuing his work. Many allies were baffled and hurt by her
campaign to exonerate James Earl Ray, who in 1969 pleaded guilty to her
husband's murder, and her contention that Ray did not commit the crime.
More often, however, Mrs. King has been seen as an inspirational figure, a
woman of enormous spiritual depth who came to personify the ideals Dr. King
"She'll be remembered as a strong woman whose grace and dignity held up the
image of her husband as a man of peace, of racial justice, of fairness,"
said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference with Dr. King and then served as its president for 20
years. "I don't know that she was a civil rights leader in the truest sense,
but she became a civil rights figure and a civil rights icon because of what
she came to represent."
Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, the second of three children born to
Obadiah and Bernice Scott. She grew up in a two-room house that her father
had built on land that had been owned by the family for three generations.
The family was poor, and she grew up picking cotton in the hot fields of the
segregated South or doing housework. But Mr. Scott hauled timber, owned a
country store and worked as a barber. His wife drove a school bus, and the
whole family helped raise hogs, cows, chickens and vegetables. So, by the
standards of blacks in Alabama at the time, the family had both resources
and ambitions beyond the reach of most others.
Some of Coretta Scott's earliest insights into the injustice of segregation
came as she walked to her one-room schoolhouse each day, watching buses of
white children stir up dust as they passed. She got her first sense of the
world beyond rural Alabama when she attended the Lincoln School, a private
missionary institution in nearby Marion, where she studied piano and voice
and had her first encounters with college-educated teachers, and where she
resolved to flee to a world far beyond rural, segregated Alabama.
She graduated first in her high school class of 17 in 1945 and attended
Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where, two years earlier, her older
sister, Edythe, had been the first black to enroll. She studied education
and music, and went on to the New England Conservatory of Music, hoping to
become a classical singer. She worked as a mail order clerk and cleaned
houses to augment a fellowship that barely paid her tuition.
A First Encounter
Her first encounter with the man who would become her husband did not begin
auspiciously, as recounted in "Parting the Waters," by Taylor Branch. Dr.
King, in the market for a wife, called her after getting her name from a
friend and announced: "You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo. I'm like
Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees."
Ms. Scott, two years his elder, replied: "That's absurd. You don't even know
Still, she agreed to meet for lunch the next day, only to be put off
initially that he was not taller. But she was impressed by his erudition and
confidence, and he saw in her the refined, intelligent woman he was looking
for to be the wife of a preacher from one of Atlanta's most prominent
When he proposed, she deliberated for six months before saying yes, and they
were married in the garden of her parents' house on June 18, 1953. The 350
guests, big-city folks from Atlanta and rural neighbors from Alabama, made
it the biggest wedding, white or black, the area had ever seen.
Even before the wedding she made it clear she intended to remain her own
woman. She stunned Dr. King's father, who presided over the wedding, by
demanding that the promise to obey her husband be removed from the wedding
vows. Reluctantly, he went along. After the wedding, the bridegroom fell
asleep in the car while the new Mrs. King drove back to Atlanta.
Mrs. King thought she was signing on for the ministry, not ground zero in
the seismic cultural struggle that would soon shake the South. Her husband
became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1954,
but about a year later, the Montgomery Bus Boycott brought Dr. King to
national attention. Then, like riders on a runaway freight train, the
minister and his young wife found themselves in the middle of a movement
that would transform the South and ripple through the nation.
In 1960, the family moved back to Atlanta, where Dr. King shared the pulpit
of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.
With four young children to raise — Yolanda, born in 1955; Martin III, in
1957; Dexter, in 1961; and Bernice, in 1963 — and a movement dominated by
men, Mrs. King mostly remained away from the front lines of the movement.
But the danger was always there, including a brush with death when Dr. King
was stabbed while autographing books in Harlem in 1958.
An Active Role
What role Mrs. King would play was a source of some tension. Wanting to be
there for their children, she also wanted to be active in the movement. Dr.
King was, she had said, traditional in his view of women and balked at the
notion that she should be more conspicuous.
"Martin was a very strong person, and in many ways had very traditional
ideas about women," she told The New York Times Magazine in 1972.
She added: "He'd say, 'I have no choice, I have to do this, but you haven't
been called.' And I said, 'Can't you understand? You know I have an urge to
serve just like you have.' "
Still, he always described her as a partner in his mission, not just a
supportive spouse. "I wish I could say, to satisfy my masculine ego, that I
led her down this path," he said in a 1967 interview. "But I must say we
went down together, because she was as actively involved and concerned when
we met as she is now."
She largely carved out her own niche, most prominently through more than 30
Freedom Concerts, at which she lectured, read poetry and sang to raise
awareness of and money for the civil rights movement.
The division disappeared with Dr. King's assassination. Suddenly, she was
not just a symbol of the nation's grief, but a woman devoted to carrying on
her husband's work. How to do that was something that evolved over time.
Marching in Memphis was a dramatic statement, but Ralph Abernathy, one of
Dr. King's lieutenants, was chosen to take over.
In stepping in for her husband after his death, Mrs. King at first used his
own words as much as possible, as if her goal were simply to maintain his
presence. But soon she developed her own language and her own causes. So,
when she stood in for her husband at the Poor People's Campaign at the
Lincoln Memorial on June 19, 1968, she spoke not just of his vision, but of
hers, of gender as well as race. She called upon American women "to unite
and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of
racism, poverty and war."
She joined the board of directors of the National Organization for Women and
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she became widely
identified with a broad array of international human rights issues, rather
than focusing primarily on race.
That broad view, she would argue, was completely in keeping with Dr. King's
vision. To carry on that legacy, she focused on two tasks. The first was to
have a national holiday established in Dr. King's honor, and the second was
to build the center in Atlanta to honor his memory, continue his work and
provide a research facility for scholars of his work and the civil rights
The first goal was achieved, despite much opposition, in 1983, when Congress
approved a measure designating the third Monday in January as a federal
holiday in honor of Dr. King, who was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929.
President Ronald Reagan, who had long opposed the King Holiday as too
expensive and inappropriate, signed the bill, but pointedly refrained from
criticizing fellow Republicans like Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina,
who had opposed Dr. King, saying he had consorted with Communists.
The holiday was first observed on Jan. 20, 1986.
The second goal, much more expensive, time consuming and elusive, remains a
work in progress — and a troubled one at that. When Mrs. King announced
plans for a memorial in 1969, she envisioned a Lincolnesque tomb, an
exhibition hall, the restoration of her husband's childhood home, institutes
on nonviolent social change and Afro-American studies, a library building,
an archives building and a museum of African-American life and culture. She
envisioned a center that would be a haven for scholars and a training ground
for advocates of nonviolent social change.
An Ambitious Struggle
Even friends say it may have been too ambitious a goal. Building the center
was a major achievement, but many of Dr. King's allies, particularly the
leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said it was
draining scarce resources.
The center also struggled to find its mission. Critics worried that it had
become a family enterprise, Dexter and Martin III vying for leadership. The
problems became particularly acute after Mrs. King suffered a stroke and
heart attack in August 2005. The brothers struggled for control over the
center while she was recuperating.
Many supporters were saddened and baffled by the family's campaign on behalf
of Mr. Ray, who confessed to killing Dr. King and then recanted. Mr. Ray was
seeking a new trial when he died in 1998.
After Mr. Ray's death, Mrs. King issued a statement calling his death a
tragedy for his family and for the nation and saying that a trial would have
"produced new revelations about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray's innocence."
Besides her four children and her sister, Edythe, of Cheyney, Pa., survivors
include her brother, Obie Leonard Scott of Greensboro, Ala.
Mrs. King remained a beloved figure, often compared to Jacqueline Kennedy
Onassis as a woman who overcame tragedy, held her family together and became
an inspirational presence around the world.
Admirers said she bore her special burden — being expected to carry on her
husband's work and teachings — with a sense of spirit and purpose that made
her more than a symbol.
If picking up Dr. King's mantle was an impossible task, the relationship she
shared with him was truly a partnership. "I think on many points she
educated me," Dr. King once said, and she never veered from the conviction,
expressed throughout her life, that his dream was also hers.
"I didn't learn my commitment from Martin," she told an interviewer. "We
just converged at a certain time."