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'First lady' of civil rights

Coretta Scott King, a pioneer of the civil rights movement who marched alongside her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in the fight for equality and carried his torch for nearly four decades after his death, died early yesterday in Mexico. She was 78.

In a statement, the King family said Mrs. King was seeking treatment for ovarian cancer at a holistic hospital in Rosarito, Mexico. The family said doctors in the United States had declared her cancer terminal and the family wanted to explore alternative treatments.

Doctors at the Santa Monica Health Institute in Mexico said Mrs. King's cancer was so advanced that they had not begun treatment since her arrival Thursday. The doctors told the Associated Press that the cause of death was respiratory failure, brought on by the cancer and a serious stroke she suffered in August.

Mrs. King's four children called their mother the "first lady of human and civil rights" and thanked mourners for their prayers and condolences. Piles of flowers were laid at Dr. King's tomb in Atlanta, where hundreds paid their respects. Mrs. King is expected to be entombed next to her husband after her body is flown to Atlanta.

Mrs. King came into her own as a civil rights leader after her husband was assassinated in 1968. She led a march of 50,000 people in Memphis days after his death, founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and took up her own causes, including women's rights. She also led the effort to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday.

"She ran the race with him, holding the baton with him, and when he had to let go, she kept running," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, immediate past president of the Congressional Black Caucus. "People talk about Dr. King's dream, but he wasn't the only one who had the dream. She bought into his dream, and he bought into hers, too."

Mrs. King was raised in rural Alabama, where she had to walk five miles to school, and the overt racism she faced influenced her husband's activism, say those who knew the family. She helped write her husband's speeches and persuaded him to oppose the war in Vietnam.

'Listening post' "She shouldered his troubles. Her ears were his listening post. Her voice calmed his fears," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who was with Dr. King when he was shot in Memphis and who called Mrs. King to give her the news. "She was a freedom fighter. She fought 30 years beyond his death."

Mrs. King's death, three months after the death of Rosa Parks, prompted civil rights leaders yesterday to speak of the need to carry on the work of the generation that led the fight for equal rights in the 1950s and 1960s, a generation that many younger Americans know only through history books.

"These are the people who made it possible for so many of us to accomplish the things that we've accomplished in our lifetimes," Mr. Cummings said, "and now they're passing on, and what we must now do is make sure their efforts and their spirits and their commitment live on in us."

Thurgood Marshall Jr., a Washington lawyer and son of the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, said he was moved by Mrs. King's "dignity and presence." He added, "Her serenity, warmth and strength were always unmistakable."

Civil rights leaders said the luster of her achievements was not dimmed by recent squabbles within the King family over the future of the King Center, which was formed to preserve and promote Dr. King's teachings, or by her efforts to get a new trial for James Earl Ray because she doubted that he acted alone when he assassinated her husband.

In a statement yesterday, President Bush said, "Mrs. King was a remarkable and courageous woman and a great civil rights leader. She carried on the legacy of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including through her extraordinary work at the King Center. Mrs. King's lasting contributions to freedom and equality have made America a better and more compassionate nation."

Coretta Scott King was born April 27, 1927, in Marion, Ala. Her father, Obadiah Scott, worked in a lumber mill and farmed land his family had owned for three generations. Her mother, Bernice McMurry Scott, was a homemaker. The family was better off than many but faced the racism endemic to the rural South at that time.

"It was an extremely racist area," said Digby Diehl, a writer who worked with Mrs. King on her memoirs in recent years. "Mrs. King saw the really harsh handling of black people and race relations in her youth."

She walked five miles each day to the one-room Crossroads School, which was run by missionaries. Mrs. King was valedictorian of her high school class of 17 students, and she won a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio, where she joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

An accomplished singer, she went to graduate school at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1952.

Dr. King had gotten her name from a friend, and she agreed to meet him for lunch. Her first impression of him was that he was too short, and her second was that he looked unimpressive, she wrote in her autobiography, My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.

Those impressions soon changed.

"Martin looked at me very carefully," she wrote. "At the time, I was still wearing bangs that had a natural wave, and my hair was long. He liked that and said so. In those few minutes, I had forgotten about Martin being short and had completely revised my first impression. He radiated charm. When he talked, he grew in stature. ... I knew immediately that he was special."

The couple married June 18, 1953, at Mrs. King's parents' house in Alabama. Coretta Scott King immediately made it clear that she would be an equal partner in the marriage. She insisted that the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who was conducting the ceremony, remove from the vows the line about obeying her husband.

"She believed in women's rights," Diehl said. "She believed women were equal, and there was no question that marriage was going to be a very equal marriage, and it was."

The newlyweds moved to Montgomery, Ala., where Dr. King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Mrs. King did not expect to spend her life at the center of the civil rights struggle, but she embraced the cause when Dr. King emerged as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

Mrs. King often stayed home to raise the couple's children while Dr. King traveled the country advancing civil rights. The couple had four children: Yolanda, born in 1955, Martin III in 1957, Dexter in 1961 and Bernice in 1963.

For Mrs. King, staying in Montgomery was not without its risks. On Jan. 30, 1956, she was home with Yolanda when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the family's home. She moved quickly when she heard a thump on the porch, according to her autobiography.

"We moved fast, not through the hall, which would have taken us near the sound, but straight back through the guest bedroom," she wrote. "We were in the middle of it when there was a thunderous blast. Then smoke and the sound of breaking glass."

Mrs. King marched with her husband from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, wearing flat heels for perhaps the first time in public. And she was with her husband in 1964, in Oslo, Norway, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Opposed Vietnam War Even before her husband's death, she had her own causes. She was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War before Dr. King was. She organized more than 30 "Freedom Concerts," in which she sang and lectured to raise money for civil rights organizations.

When Dr. King was shot, on April 4, 1968, Mrs. King was home in Atlanta. She immediately flew to Memphis and led a march before the funeral, championing the cause of garbage workers. The grace and dignity with which Mrs. King handled her grief helped pull the nation together and was compared by admirers to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' conduct in the days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"Mrs. King had the tremendous ability to take her pain, her loss and her frustrations and turn them into a passport to open doors of opportunity for many," Mr. Cummings said. "She could have gone off and done nothing."

But she didn't. She worked for women's rights, for the rights of gays and lesbians, and for the vulnerable and downtrodden around the world. She protested apartheid in South Africa, and she met with Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Among her most significant efforts was establishing a federal holiday to honor her husband. Over the opposition of some Southern senators and President Ronald Reagan, who worried about the economic cost of the holiday, Congress passed legislation to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. It was first celebrated Jan. 20, 1986.

In 1968, she established the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which has encountered trouble in carrying out its mission in recent years amid family disputes.

Mrs. King had been in failing health since suffering a stroke and a minor heart attack in August. Last week she checked into the Santa Monica Health Institute in Mexico under another name. The institute's founder and director, Kurt W. Donsbach, has a criminal record and has been accused of offering dubious treatments to desperately ill patients, the Associated Press reported.

Dr. Donsbach was not available for comment yesterday.

Mrs. King was a frequent lecturer, and on one of her visits to Baltimore, Mr. Cummings asked her whether she had one overriding lesson to impart from her life.

Mr. Cummings said he told her: "The thing to always remember is that the baton is handed from one generation to another. You've just got to make sure, first of all, to grab it and then don't drop it."

Mrs. King is survived by her four children; a sister, Edythe Bagley of Chester, Pa.; and a brother, Obie Scott of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.comSun reporter Jamie Stiehm and wire services contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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