By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ATLANTA – Coretta Scott King, who turned a life shattered by her husband’s assassination into one devoted to enshrining his legacy of human rights and equality, has died. She was 78.
King was a tireless advocate for African Americans, women and gays and lesbians. “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people,” she said in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”
“All of us who aspire to live without prejudice or limits owe a very large debt to Mrs. King,” said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “She was what Virginia Woolf once called that rare combination of ‘granite and rainbow,’ at once an immovable legacy on which we all stood and a luminous reminder of the arc waiting just behind the rain. A tireless advocate for equality, she leaves us both her own work and the work we must all yet do.”
On Jan. 31, the morning of her passing, the Human Rights Campaign’s web site featured a picture of King and the words, “In Tribute to Coretta Scott King: April 1927 – January 2006.”
“Once in a lifetime God grants us with the ability to witness an extraordinary life dedicated to justice,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “With Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., God smiled on us and fortunately granted us two.”
“Today our nation mourns the loss of another courageous leader,” said Jasmyne Cannick, co-chair of the Stonewall Democrats Black Caucus. “Coretta Scott King was more than Dr. Martin Luther King’s wife, she was her own person in her own right. Mrs. King stood for justice, equality, and global human rights for everyone. Black or non-black, gay or straight, Mrs. King dedicated her life to love, justice, equality, and global human rights and for that we are truly grateful.”
“Today is a sad day for the world, but we can honor her memory and her husband’s dream by using their lives as an example and by making the promise of freedom, equality and opportunity real for all people,” Cannick added.
“I … am in awe of her because she’s such a great example and teacher of humility and giving,” said her assistant, openly gay Lynn Cothren, in a May, 2004 interview with BTL. “She’s so generous, she’s just a generous person and it’s not in the sense of materialism but her spirit. She’s always thinking of other people.” (See “Lynn Cothren: In the shadow of a civil rights icon,” online at www.pridesource.com.)
Former Mayor Andrew Young said on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Web site that Bernice King found her mother at about 1 a.m. on Jan. 31.
Young, a former civil rights activist who was close to the King family, told NBC’s Today show, “I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter 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.”
King suffered a serious stroke and heart attack in 2005.
She was a supportive lieutenant to her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the most tumultuous days of the American civil rights movement. They married in 1953.
After her husband’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, she kept his dream alive while also raising their four children.
Only days after his death, she flew to Memphis with three of her children to lead the march of thousands in honor of her slain husband and to plead for his cause. Her unfaltering composure and controlled grief during those days stirred the hearts of millions.
King became a symbol, in her own right, of her husband’s struggle for peace and brotherhood, presiding with a quiet, steady, stoic presence over seminars and conferences on global issues.
“I’m more determined than ever that my husband’s dream will become a reality,” King said soon after his slaying, a demonstration of the strong will that lay beneath the placid calm and dignity of her character.
In 1969 she founded the multimillion-dollar Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
King saw to it that the center became deeply involved with the issues she said breed violence — hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism.
“I think you rise to the occasion in a crisis,” she once said. “I think the Lord gives you strength when you need it. God was using us — and now he’s using me, too.”
Additional reporting provided by The Associated Press