Coretta Scott King's Legacy Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil right leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died Tuesday in Atlanta at 78 years old. King is not only remembered as the wife of Dr. King, but as a passionate leader in her own right.
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Coretta Scott King's Legacy

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Coretta Scott King's Legacy

Coretta Scott King's Legacy

Coretta Scott King's Legacy

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Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil right leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died Tuesday in Atlanta at 78 years old. King is not only remembered as the wife of Dr. King, but as a passionate leader in her own right.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne are away, I'm John Ydstie.

Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., died today in Atlanta. She was 78 years old. She had had several strokes since she was diagnosed with a heart condition last spring. Coretta Scott King is not only remembered as the wife of Dr. King, but as a passionate leader in her own right. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

In April 1968, the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the civil rights movement stunned the nation, and focused the spotlight on Coretta Scott King. Afterward, she appeared always dignified, brave, and perhaps even more prepared to carry on her husband's mission to bring about non-violent social change.

While her husband's body was taken back to Atlanta, Coretta Scott King attended a rally at city hall in Memphis, where Dr. King had planned to speak.

Ms. CORETTA SCOTT KING (Civil Rights Activist, late widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.): How long will it take? How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society?

(Soundbite of applause)

I never thought of it as a sacrifice during the time was involved. I thought of it as a commitment.

LOHR: In an interview with NPR in 2003, King said, even in her college days, while she was pursuing a music degree, she was an activist. She married Martin Luther King, Jr. in June, 1953, at the King family home in Alabama.

Ms. King: I married Martin Luther King, Jr. because I came to love him after I met him, but I also married the cause that we both shared in, and the commitment, and so that made it possible, when he was no longer here, for me to continue, because I understood what Martin Luther King stood for, and I felt that Martin himself was the noble example of what human beings could achieve, and was hoping that we could raise up younger generations of people who would follow in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s methods, principles of non-violence, and methods to bring about social change, and to create the beloved community that he envisioned.

LOHR: By 1955, when Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, on behalf of Rosa Parks, he had become the leading figure in the civil rights movement. Coretta was busy raising four children: Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. Angela Shelf Medearis, author of Dare to Dream, a biography of Coretta Scott King for Children, says Mrs. King did much behind the scenes work for the movement. She held concerts to raise money for the cause, and constantly offered her home as a meeting place.

Ms. ANGELA SHELF MEDEARIS (Author, Dare to Dream): She, you know, talked about how she was used to reheating the food, and keeping her house open, and being up at all times. And also dealing with the pure terror that went on during that time period, because they were constantly receiving death threats. Whether, you know, she was going with her husband to be booked in jail for some trumped up charge in order to stop the movement, or whether she was standing beside him or marching with him, she always had this rock solid belief in the purpose of what they were doing.

And I think Mrs. King was a woman who sort of set the standard for a lot of women who would come after her, and the way you should conduct yourself when you are pushed to the forefront of history.

LOHR: After her husband's assassination, other Civil Rights leaders didn't have to wait long to find out that Mrs. King would not let her husband's work die with him. Reverend Joseph Lowery was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Reverend Joseph Lowery (Minister and Former President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): She had a sense of calling to do what she could to extend a sense of Martin's presence in the movement, and so it became apparent that she was not simply going to be a housewife and mother, but that she would establish herself, not just as Mrs. Martin Luther King, but as Coretta Scott King, and as Mrs. Martin Luther King.

LOHR: In January, 1969, she announed plans to establish the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. It began in the basement of King's birthplace, and has grown into a 23-acre complex on a national historic sight. In a speech to the National Press Club in 1993, Mrs. King was clearly proud of the Center's work with young people, citing the training of Los Angeles gang members.

Ms. KING: We're teaching young people that non-violence is a powerful force for moral transformation. We're empowering them to rise above the bitter cycle of revenge, retaliation, and retribution that poisons human relations, and create instead a climate of cooperation that can confront and rectify injustice in a more loving way.

LOHR: Coretta Scott King continued to speak out against oppression all over the world. She lobbied, almost since Dr. King's death, on behalf of a federal holiday to honor him, and finally got that designation in 1986. By 2000, all of the states and the District of Columbia observed the holiday. Reverend Lowery.

Rev. LOWERY: Well, I think she would be an inspiration for women, and men as well, forever, because Martin's name will continue to ring, holiday is here, and her extension of his spirit and presence will be in perpetuity.

LOHR: In 2003, Coretta Scott King continued to be a voice for peace. She used the holiday to urge people to speak out as her husband would have against the U.S. war in Iraq.

Ms. King: Martin made his words credible with action as he protested against the war in Vietnam, may his challenge and his example guide and inspire us to seek peaceful alternatives to the war with Iraq, and military conflict in the Middle East, and all over the world.

LOHR: Coretta Scott King was 78 years old. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

YDSTIE: Joining me now to talk more about Coretta Scott King's life and legacy is NPR's Senior Correspondant, Juan Williams. Welcome, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, John.

YDSTIE: Juan, you knew Coretta Scott King, what impressed you most about her?

WILLIAMS: John, she had a really quiet, dignified way of conducting herself. She was, I think, to most African-Americans, royalty. She was our Jackie Kennedy, in terms of the widow of a great leader. And she was someone who was fully, as a public figure, regarded also as a mother. I mean, people tend to forget she's the mother of four children who were left without a father, and not only that, took care of her own parents in Alabama, and her parents lived to a very old age, and she was always very much involved with family in Marion and in Atlanta.

YDSTIE: But she also went about carrying on her husband's work.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. In fact, her greatest achievement, arguably, is the King Center in Atlanta. People forget it's the first memorial really built to an African-American in this country, and it was built largely because of Coretta Scott King's efforts. She raised the money, 14 years of fund raising in order to create which, what I believe is the biggest tourist attraction to this day in the city of Atlanta, Georgia.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. In recent years, the King Center, though, has been surrounded by some controversy. Can you tell us about that?

WILLIAMS: Well, a tremendous controversy, a controversy at the moment of the possible sale of the King Center. Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice had been opposed, the two boys Dexter and Martin Luther King III have supported the idea of selling it to the federal government and letting them run it. The King Center is now sort of run down. But the larger controversy is about Coretta Scott King's very intense control of every aspect of the King legacy, from his speeches, his letters, books he wrote, images of Dr. King.

And people felt as if, really, she should have been helping to get that message and the King legacy out more to the people rather than trying to control it, and demand money in some cases for it. So, she felt she needed the money to support and sustain the King Center. It became a real controversy among people involved in the movement. In addition, she was never a supporter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which the organization that her husband supported, and people felt maybe she should have embraced that as well.

YDSTIE: Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, John.

YDSTIE: NPR's Senior Correspondant, Juan Williams.

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