By ERIKA ANDERSON and CNS-Staff Writer | Published February 2, 2006
Coretta Scott King, who died Jan. 30 at age 78, will be remembered for her fidelity to civil rights and nonviolent justice that had been sought by her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
She died during the night at a holistic health center in Baja California, Mexico. Funeral arrangements are pending.
“A good wife is a generous gift bestowed upon him who fears the LORD. Surely, the words of the author of the Book of Sirach applied in a special way to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta in a Jan. 31 statement. “The entire nation stands in awe of the wondrous legacy of this great woman of faith. We in the Archdiocese of Atlanta are especially grieved at her death. She was a noble resident of our city and a proud bearer of the heritage of freedom and justice that her husband epitomized and that she fulfilled with incredible determination. Dr. King could not have found a worthier spouse and colleague in the struggle for social change and civil rights,” Archbishop Gregory added. “May Coretta Scott King and her gallant husband rest in the peace and mercy of Christ.”
Father John Adamski, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Atlanta’s first African-American parish, which is located adjacent to the King Center in Atlanta, called King’s death the “transition of an era.”
“For all these years, she represented Dr. King’s work and all he meant to our country. I really see this as the closing of a chapter,” Father Adamski said.
King’s impact on Catholics is equivalent to her impact on the world, the priest added. “The strength and determination of her commitment to continue as best she could her husband’s work is an example of virtue for all of us,” he said.
Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, recalls hearing Mrs. King speak at an interfaith event at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“It was stunning. Most people see her as quiet and gentle. You look at her face and see this woman who has carried the grief of her husband’s death within her very being,” he said. “But to hear her preach—it was electric.”
Speaking to the Catholic Press Association in Atlanta in 1969, one year after her husband was assassinated, King said the concept of churches offering financial reparation to African-Americans was “too little to demand of churches.”
“Their help,” she said, “can be more effective if the enormous influence of the 80 million members were mobilized behind demands upon Congress.”
King added, “If programs which would end poverty and abolish discrimination were enacted, all society would benefit. And all society would pay the cost rather than one part of it.”
Thirty years later, addressing the Catholic Health Association in Orlando, Fla., King had a simple remedy to cure many societal ills: “Turn off the television.”
Although positive role models exist, she told the CHA, they are not “raised up” because the media is too busy elevating “newsmakers.” Sports figures and celebrities with spotty records get airtime, along with violent events and negative role models, and as a result a “toxic culture” is created, she said.
“The media spends too much time promoting the wrong people, and we as consumers watch it happen,” she said. “We have to look at what diet we have fed our children about role models.” When dealing with young people, King suggested never losing hope and always putting love and truth in the forefront of their experiences and relationships. “We can teach to love. You can teach love by being an example of what you preach and what you teach,” she said.
Father Ricardo Bailey, parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta, attended the now-closed Our Lady of Lourdes School from kindergarten through sixth grade and remembers literally seeing the construction of Mrs. King’s dream.
“There used to be a little park where the King Center … is now. We used to go over and swing there. I can remember standing on the second floor at Our Lady of Lourdes and looking out the window and seeing the King Center being built,” he said. “For Coretta Scott King, I think the King Center was pretty much one of her children. It was an explanation of her husband’s life and was used to educate people far and wide.”
Father Bailey also recalled summers in which thousands of tourists visited the Center.
“You’d see all of these people who just flocked there on pilgrimage, people from all ethnicities and from all different countries,” he said. “All of these people were impacted by Mrs. King’s dream (for the King Center) and she made it available to all.”
Father Bailey said Mrs. King’s death has presented a challenge to all younger generations.
“The death of Coretta Scott King is a stark reality that a lot of our civil rights leaders are getting up in age,” he said, adding that on the January King holiday, Mrs. King always called it a “day on, not a day off.”
“We have to question their vision and ask ourselves if we are really doing it—learning lessons from these (civil rights) giants, or are we taking them for granted,” he said. “This is not something to keep in the back of our minds. We need to put those thoughts into action.”
King had suffered a serious stroke and a heart attack in 2005 and did not take part in observances this year to honor her late husband, whose Jan. 15 birthday is commemorated by a federal holiday on the third Monday of January. This year it was Jan. 16.
In late 1991, King sent a letter to religious leaders across the nation asking them to ring their bells on the King birthday holiday.
“‘Let Freedom Ring’ tradition is meant to be a call to people of all races and ethnic origins to reflect on the ideals of brotherhood, service to others and commitment to creating the ‘beloved community’ of which Dr. King so fervently spoke,” she wrote, adding the ceremony is a good opening for discussion groups to address racial problems or homelessness at the community level.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington rang its bells for 30 minutes in 1991.
King received several honors and awards in her lifetime, including an award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and the Freedom Medal for her contribution to fulfilling President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of “a world founded on four essential freedoms”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Born April 27, 1927, in Marion, Ala., she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and education from Antioch College in Ohio in 1951. She also had two degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music. She and Rev. King were married June 18, 1953. She is survived by the couple’s four children, Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott and Bernice Albertine.