By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Coretta Scott King, the dignified and determined widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who assumed her murdered husband's burden as chief symbol of the civil rights movement and fiercely guarded his legacy — often in ways that drew pointed criticism — has died. She was 78.
King, who had heart problems and had suffered a major stroke in 2005, died during the night, her family said in a statement.
"We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," the King family statement said.
Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young broke the news in a call to NBC's "Today" show this morning.
"I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter [Bernice] went in to wake her up and she was not able to, and so she quietly slipped away. Her spirit will remain with us just as her husband's has." Young said.
Sometimes called the first lady of the civil rights movement, King was thrown into a life of struggle soon after she married the charismatic minister, whose eloquence and strategy of nonviolence put the fight for racial equality on the national agenda. Although the responsibilities of motherhood and her husband's traditional thinking about sex roles kept her off the frontlines during many of the pivotal campaigns of the 1960s, she shared his deep commitment to social justice and was a critical influence at key moments in his career.
She helped to win his release from a Georgia prison in 1960 through a widely publicized telephone call from then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. A staunch pacifist, she influenced her husband's controversial decision in 1967 to speak out against the Vietnam War.
After her husband's murder in 1968, she fought for more than a decade to establish a federal holiday on his birthday. The goal was accomplished in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan, yielding to popular pressure, signed the law, becoming the only American besides George Washington so honored.
She also raised millions of dollars to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, an Atlanta complex that houses her husband's tomb, archives and exhibits. She served as its president for two decades.
However, her decision to focus the King Center on educational efforts rather than the direct action her husband was famous for disappointed many movement leaders. Some of the slain icon's closest allies became her critics when she and her family allowed financial concerns to guide the use of his image and his stirring words by scholars, television producers and journalists.
The King family sued to enforce the copyrights on his writings and speeches and offered his archives — at one time valued at $30 million — for sale to the highest bidder. Their actions engendered debate over whom King's ideas belong to — his estate or the American public — and how much more his survivors should be expected to sacrifice.
Operating in her husband's long shadow was a challenge that tested King to the end of her life.
"I am often identified as the widow of Martin Luther King Jr.," she said some years ago. "Sometimes, I am also identified as a civil rights leader or a human rights activist. While these designations are factually correct, I would also like to be thought of as a complex, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of experiences, much like everyone else, yet unique in my own way much like everyone else."
King knew more hardship and prejudice from an early age than the man who would one day sweep her into history.
She was born on April 27, 1927 on her grandfather's farm in Heiberger, Ala., about 80 miles south of Montgomery. Her parents, Obadiah and Bernice Scott, grew cotton, and young Coretta hoed and harvested alongside the hired hands. Her father bragged that she was the best cotton picker in the family, capable of pulling in 200 pounds a day.
Obadiah supplemented the family income by hauling lumber for other people. He became the only black man in town to own a truck; eventually, he owned three trucks and a sawmill. But this modicum of success brought on the resentment of whites, who would sometimes stop him on the road and threaten him.
Later, both his house and sawmill were destroyed in suspicious fires. The culprits were never found.
"I learned very early to live with fear for the people I loved. It was good training," King wrote in her 1969 memoir, "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr."
Each day, she and her sister, Edythe, walked three miles to a segregated elementary school outside town while white children rode to theirs in a bus; each day, the buses would "rattle past us in a cloud of dust or a spatter of mud," Coretta wrote, recalling her hurt and anger.
When she and her sister finished the lower grades, they went to nearby Marion to attend semi-private Lincoln High School, founded for blacks by white missionaries after the Civil War. There, Coretta learned to read music, play piano and sing classical works. To help with her expenses, she took a job in town as a domestic, working for a white woman who wanted her to use the back door and answer every command with "yes, ma'am." Bristling at these rules, Coretta quickly found herself out of work.
Although their mother dropped out of school after the fourth grade, the Scott girls were expected to reach much higher. In 1943, Edythe became the first black student to enroll at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Coretta joined her in 1945 and became the first black at Antioch to major in elementary education.
One of the requirements for her major was to spend a year teaching in a public school, but the all-white faculty at the one school in town would not accept her, even though some of their students were black. This rejection, Coretta recalled, made her "terribly disillusioned and upset." Finding no sympathy for her grievances, she resigned herself to teaching at the school on campus and channeled her frustrations into the Antioch chapter of the NAACP.
Then she met Paul Robeson, the famous black baritone and activist, who heard her sing at a political event and urged her to undertake voice training. She shifted the focus of her studies to music and began to envision a career based on Robeson's example.
"I admired Robeson so much because he was a tremendous personality," King told the Washington Post in 1978. "He was a powerful figure on the stage, combining the singing with the social issues. That was what I planned to do."
In 1951, King won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She arrived with $15 in her pocket and the promise of a room and breakfast for $7 a week in the Beacon Hill house of an Antioch patron. When her money ran out, she survived on peanut butter and crackers until a school counselor helped her arrange to do housework in exchange for her board.
In early 1952, a matchmaking friend asked if she would be interested in meeting a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta who was studying for his doctorate at Boston University. The minute she heard that the young man was a minister, she lost interest, fearing that he would be too pious and narrow-minded for her taste.
But Martin Luther King Jr. called her anyway and made a strong play for her affections. When she appeared immune to his charms, he was undaunted, telling her that every man has his Waterloo and Coretta might be his. She dismissed his line as "intellectual jive," but agreed to meet him for lunch the next day.
When he stepped out of his green Chevy, he struck her as short and unimpressive. But when he spoke, she said, "he grew in stature," revealing charisma, intelligence and moral passion. After an animated conversation about music, race, economic injustice and peace, Martin made his feelings known.
"So you can do something else besides sing? You've got a good mind also. You have everything I ever wanted in a woman. We ought to get married someday," he told her.
Although she was nearly 25, somewhat past the prime marrying age for women of the era, Coretta did not leap into romance: She had been disappointed in love before. She also knew marriage would spell the end of her plans for a singing career.
"When I got home to my room after our first meeting, my intellect hoped that Martin had not really meant what he said about marriage," she wrote in her memoir. "For I did not want anything to stop me, to stop my career. And my emotions told me that this might."
Her emotions prevailed. She and the young doctoral student from Morehouse courted intensely over the next months. When she realized she was not the only object of his affections, she invited his other girlfriends to a surprise party for him — and coolly eliminated them from contention.
"Coretta was all graciousness, thereby making it clear that she was in charge," Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who was one of King's top lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote in his 1996 memoir, "An Easy Burden." "It was a nonviolent way to deal with one's opposition that Martin couldn't help but respect."
Her resolve did not weaken in the face of fierce opposition from Martin's father. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was pressuring his son to choose his bride from within their own comfortably middle-class circle in Atlanta. But "Daddy King" ultimately gave Coretta his blessing and presided over the marriage ceremony in the garden of her parents' home in Alabama on June 19, 1953.
Later that summer Martin was offered the pastorship of Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Ala. Although Coretta was reluctant to give up the freedom and opportunities she had grown to enjoy in the North, she moved to Montgomery with Martin in September, after she earned her degree in voice and violin and Martin passed his exams.
He had barely finished his doctoral dissertation when Coretta discovered she was pregnant. Their first child, Yolanda Denise, was born on Nov. 17, 1955.
A few weeks later, on Dec. 1, 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded a crowded Montgomery bus and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. She was arrested for violating the state's bus segregation law, igniting a fury among Montgomery's blacks that would ripple across the South. Local black leaders formed the ad hoc Montgomery Improvement Assn. and called for a boycott of the municipal bus system.
The man chosen to lead the protest was the young minister from Dexter Avenue Church.
Earlier, Martin had been offered the presidency of the local NAACP, but Coretta had talked him out of it by arguing that it would deprive the church of his attention. "Coretta's opposition probably resulted in one of the luckiest decisions of my life," Martin later wrote. "For when the bus protest movement broke out, I would hardly have been able to accept the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Assn. without lending weight to the oft-made white contention that the whole thing was an NAACP conspiracy."
Martin became the most famous black man in America when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 13, 1956 that Montgomery's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. He became known as a powerful rhetorician, whose most famous speech — the "I Have a Dream" address delivered at the 1963 March on Washington — was a clarion call for justice that galvanized the nation. The following year he reaped the world's accolades as the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
But peril was ever-present. The Kings' house in Montgomery had been bombed in 1956 when Coretta was at home with baby Yolanda. No one was hurt, but angry blacks marched to the house with guns, ready to wreak havoc on the perpetrators. Then in 1958, Martin was stabbed in the heart by a deranged black woman in Harlem; doctors said if he had sneezed, he would have died.
He also was jailed numerous times, the most traumatic imprisonment coming in 1960 shortly after the Kings moved to Atlanta, the headquarters of the newly formed SCLC. He had been sentenced to six months of hard labor in a remote Georgia penitentiary on charges stemming from an invalid driver's license. Coretta feared he would be killed in prison.
His incarceration was cut short only through the intercession of John F. Kennedy, who called Coretta from the campaign trail to offer his help.
When Robert F. Kennedy, his younger brother and campaign manager, heard about the call, he went into a rage, fearful that the show of support for the civil rights leader would cost his brother crucial votes in the South. According to an account included in Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer's 1990 oral history of the civil rights movement, "Voices of Freedom," the future attorney general told an aide that when he "thought about King in jail with that sentence, and screwing up our politics in this country and maybe losing the election for my brother," he got so mad that he called the sentencing judge and persuaded him to free the charismatic leader. King was released the next day.
News of John Kennedy's support for King was spread through pamphlets disseminated in black churches on the Sunday before the election. The Massachusetts Democrat wound up defeating GOP nominee Richard M. Nixon by 100,000 votes. "The most startling component of Kennedy's victory," according to historian Taylor Branch, "was his 40% margin among Negro voters," who historically had voted Republican.
"It is my belief that historians are right when they say that [Kennedy's] intervention in Martin's case won the presidency for him," Coretta wrote years later.
Plunged into the movement so soon after marrying, the Kings had little time to develop a normal family life. Martin traveled constantly: He was in jail or away on movement business when Martin III and Dexter were born in 1957 and 1961, respectively, and nearly missed the arrival of Bernice in 1963.
Although he often asked Coretta to stand in for him at rallies when he had to be elsewhere, he usually wanted her to stay home and raise their family. Thus, she rarely joined her husband on the front lines of marches, which bred resentment. As she pointedly told a reporter once, "My husband says, 'You have to take care of the children.' "
He may have had other reasons to keep her at home, according to biographers and former colleagues.
Rev. King had affairs with other women and grew particularly close to one woman, according to David J. Garrow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 book "Bearing the Cross, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Garrow wrote of how the FBI bugged King's hotel rooms and sent a sampling of its evidence of his extramarital couplings to SCLC headquarters.
Ralph David Abernathy recalled in his 1989 memoir of the movement, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," that the movement leader had been unfaithful on the night before he was killed. But these assertions of infidelity were dismissed by Coretta, who said in Garrow's book that she would not allow such suspicions to taint "the very high-level relationship" she enjoyed with her husband.
Family finances were another strain. Martin gave away most of his modest income; in the early days in Atlanta, they lived on his salary of $6,000 a year from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he co-pastored with his father, and some lecture fees. He kept none of the $54,000 in Nobel prize money, even though Coretta had wanted to set aside $20,000 for their children's college funds. But Martin "felt that the prize was an award to the movement in general, rather than to him individually, and that the entire amount should be used in the struggle and not for the benefit of his family," according to Garrow.
Despite Martin's desire for Coretta to remain at home as much as possible, he encouraged her participation in another movement. She had been a member since her college days of the anti-war group Women's Strike for Peace. At Martin's urging, she joined a delegation of the group that went to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962 for atomic test-ban talks. She also was a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1969, she would lead a quarter of a million people on the first "moratorium" on the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C.
"I think, on many points, she educated me," Martin said in an interview with Arnold Michaelis in 1967, the year he finally broke with other civil rights leaders on the issue of speaking out against the war. "I wish I could say, to satisfy my masculine ego, that I led her down this path; but I must say we went down together, because she was as actively involved and concerned when we met as she is now."
Coretta also raised money for the civil rights movement by organizing a series of "Freedom Concerts," the first of which took place in New York City in 1964. They were modeled on a program held on Dec. 5, 1956, the first anniversary of the Montgomery boycott, in which she, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte and other performers told the story of the Montgomery struggle through music, poetry and prose.
Rep. John Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Georgia who marched with her husband and was an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalled being stirred by her performance in Nashville in 1958.
"I was struck, not just by her beauty, but by the pure grace of her presence [S]he sang, all alone on the stage, spirituals like 'Steal Away' and 'There's a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land,' and some old slave songs. She recited a poem or two as well. It was mesmerizing, just her by herself, a one-woman show," Lewis wrote in his 1998 memoir, "Walking With the Wind."
She eventually gave more than 30 concerts and raised in excess of $50,000 for the cause.
Coretta was at home with the children on the afternoon of April 4, 1968, when the phone rang. It was Jesse Jackson, one of her husband's top aides. "Coretta, Doc just got shot. I would advise you to take the next thing smoking."
The civil rights icon had been shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had come to support a strike by sanitation workers. She was at the Atlanta airport waiting for the next plane to Memphis when word came that her husband had died of his wounds. Observers later would remark on her calm in the midst of the misery, confusion and anger spawned by his murder.
She was 40 to his 39 when he shot. They had been married for 14 years.
President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning. On April 9, 200,000 to 300,000 mourners packed the streets around Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church before falling in line behind his mule-drawn casket for a four-mile march through the city.
The funeral drew a diverse group of top dignitaries and celebrities, including Jacqueline Kennedy; Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and his chief presidential rivals, Nixon and Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.); Vice President Hubert Humphrey; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; and U.N. Undersecretary Ralph Bunche. Entertainer Harry Belafonte sat behind Coretta King, who was flanked by the King family and her four children, ages 5 to 13.
Before burying her husband, King flew to Memphis to take his place at the head of the protest march by garbage workers whose plight had brought him to the city. A month later, she helped to open the Poor Peoples' Campaign that he had been planning before his death. As Abernathy recalled in his memoir of the movement, King delivered a stirring speech that called for "black women, white women, brown women and red women — all women of this nation — [to join] in a campaign of conscience." She called for welfare reform and benefits for women with children.
She was elected to the SCLC board. But while others expected her to raise her children and fulfill the symbolic role of the widow of the martyr, she wanted to be a leader and carry on her husband's work.
"This caused incredible tension within the SCLC staff," Young wrote. "Ralph [Abernathy] and the board wanted to use Coretta to raise money for SCLC, but they didn't want her to play any kind of policy role in the organization. The men in SCLC were incapable of dealing with a strong woman like Coretta, who was insisting on being treated as an equal."
Abernathy eventually was chosen to lead the SCLC. King became the custodian of her late husband's legacy.
In 1969 she began to mobilize support for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change. She eventually raised $15 million to build the complex, which opened in 1982. Located within a 23-acre national historic park that includes his birth home, the center houses his tomb, a museum, a gift shop and archives. King ran the center as president.
Within a few years after her husband's death, she also channeled her energy into a long and difficult drive to establish a King holiday.
After repeated failures in Congress to pass a bill, the King family in 1971 backed a mule train that deposited 3 million petitions in favor of the holiday at the Capitol. Over the next several years, other endorsements came in the form of a song titled "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder and successful state bills establishing a King holiday. But federal legislation was blocked by formidable opponents, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who argued that the holiday's price tag in federal overtime would be too steep.
Finally, in 1983, black leaders approached Rep. Jack Kemp, a Republican from New York, to lead the charge. They arranged for Coretta King to personally plead the case for the holiday. Kemp would later compare his meeting with King to "sitting down with Mother Teresa." The conservative congressman agreed to champion the bill.
The legislation cleared Congress on Nov. 19, 1983 and was signed by Reagan two weeks later. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became the 10th national holiday and only the second named for an American. (The first was George Washington; Abraham Lincoln's birthday is only observed in some states.)
Coretta King chaired the commission that planned the first annual celebration festivities in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 1986.
"The holiday wouldn't have happened without her," Lewis, the Georgia congressman, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution n 1993.
The same was true of the King Center, which became a popular Atlanta tourist spot. She led the Atlanta center from its inception in 1969 until 1994, when she turned over the management reins to Dexter after a bruising battle with King Center board members who thought he was unqualified for the job. It is now headed by his brother, Martin Luther III.
Two daughters also survive her: Yolanda Denise and Bernice Albertine.
The King Center has been attacked over the years for a lack of activism, and it struggled financially. In the 1990s it began to run large deficits, and by 2005 it needed $11.6 million in repairs. The future of the center became the subject of an ugly family squabble, with Dexter and Yolanda pushing to sell the institution to the National Park Service over the objections of Martin III and Bernice.
Several years earlier the King family had tried to block a National Park Service proposal to open its own exhibit on Rev. King, arguing that it would detract from the family-run center across the street. The Kings and the Park Service eventually resolved their differences, but the dispute tarnished Coretta King's image.
Other controversies — such as selling the rights to her husband's "I Have a Dream" speech for use in cell phone commercials while limiting access to his papers by serious scholars and journalists- only sharpened the criticism that King and her family were putting personal profit before public interest.
The King estate forced USA Today to pay $1,700 plus legal fees after the newspaper published the text of Rev. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It also sued CBS for selling a video documentary that made extensive use of the network's own film of King and the march on Washington. After the success of Henry Hampton's widely praised PBS series on the civil rights movement, "Eyes on the Prize," the estate made similar claims that film of King had been used illegally and demanded a licensing fee. The latter dispute was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
After a deal to sell King's papers to the Library of Congress for $20 million fell through, the King estate arranged with Sotheby's auction house to sell the archives privately, but no satisfactory buyers have been found. Meanwhile, the estate was expected to earn as much as $10 million from a 1997 deal with TimeWarner to release his speeches and writings in various media, including audio and CD-ROMs.
A self-professed workaholic who often called staff members late at night, Coretta King never took a salary from the center but supported herself through speaking fees and royalties from her autobiography and her late husband's writings.
She established herself as an advocate of women's rights and full employment in the 1970s, campaigned against apartheid in the 1980s and was a keynote speaker in 1984 at the U.N. International Day of Solidarity with the Women of South Africa and Namibia. The next year she was arrested with daughter Bernice at a rally outside the South African Embassy in Washington. In 1994, she shared the podium with Nelson Mandela after he won the first nonracial government election in South Africa.
She made news again in 1997 when she gave emotional testimony in a hearing to support reopening the case of James Earl Ray, her husband's convicted killer, who was dying of liver disease. She believed that her husband had been the victim of a conspiracy that likely involved agents of the government and that Ray, who had confessed to the crime and later recanted, was innocent. He died in 1998 before a new trial could be ordered; King called his death a tragedy.
In 2004 she finally moved from the four-bedroom family home in Atlanta that she had shared with her husband after several break-ins convinced her it was unsafe. She relocated to a condominium in the exclusive Buckhead area of Atlanta that was a gift from talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
King became a vegetarian after she began to experience serious health problems, which included atrial fibrillation, a heart disorder that caused blood clots. In 2005 she spent several weeks in an Atlanta hospital after a mild heart attack and a major stroke left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
She never remarried. Nor have her children married, a consequence, Dexter suggested in his memoir "Growing Up King," of the pressure of their father's towering achievements and the trauma of his violent death.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about Martin," Coretta Scott King once said. "He was my source of inspiration. Martin and I were soul mates. When he died, a part of me died."