By GRETCHEN KEISER,Staff Writer | Published February 9, 2006
Although Coretta Scott King lived in the extraordinary shadow of her late husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she was not eclipsed but radiated her own faithfulness to God and her own greatness, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory reflected at a memorial Mass celebrated for her at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
Over her lifetime of 78 years, she “completed the mission that the Lord God gave her and the notable one that she inherited from her husband, Martin.”
“However, she did more than simply fulfill his dream,” the archbishop said. “She showed that she was quite a dreamer in her own right. She embraced a legacy and gave it added meaning. She showed the world a woman’s courage as the perfect complement to a man’s heroic sacrifice.”
As a young widow in 1968, her veiled face etched with grief is an indelible national memory, he recalled. But as in the other tragic assassinations that same decade, the assassination of Dr. King did not “defeat God’s plan or purpose” and Mrs. King’s life was a part of that victory.
“Coretta Scott King was a witness to God’s ability to bring great good even out of tragedy,” Archbishop Gregory said in his homily Feb. 2. “Rather than close her heart and take refuge in bitterness and despair, she became even more a beacon of hope for the watching world. Rather than close her heart and become a solitary person, she became even more concerned about the human condition and even more passionate about the works of justice.”
“She reached out to all sorts of people, well beyond our own race,” he said. “She expressed her concern for workers, for immigrants, for those who suffer from HIV-AIDS, for those who lacked proper medical care and the homeless. Her fields of interest only increased when so many others might have thought that they might reasonably diminish. Her heart grew stronger and more expansive rather than more limited.”
Mrs. King founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change the year her husband was killed and served as its chief executive officer until 1995, when she turned that role over to her sons, while remaining the center’s inspiration. A native of Marion, Ala., she was the valedictorian of her high school and a graduate of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, before meeting her husband in Boston while she was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and he was a doctoral theology student. They were married in 1953 and had four children, while as a young minister and wife in Montgomery, Ala., their lives intersected the very beginnings of the civil rights movement Dr. King would lead.
The nonviolence he studied, modeled and encouraged, she continued to promote and live after his death.
“Every life is sacred because it has been created by God,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Even in the face of mindless brutality, the human person never loses the dignity that God showers upon each one of us. Even death itself fails to frustrate God’s care and providence.”
The memorial Mass was celebrated at noon on Thursday, drawing a diverse congregation of students, workers, clergy and families. Over 20 priests concelebrated the Mass with the archbishop, and several deacons assisted. Members of the Archbishop Lyke Memorial Mass Choir and the Spelman College Glee Club, directed by Dr. Kevin Johnson, sang at the Mass as well as the Cathedral Choir, the music ranging from contemporary Catholic and African-American hymns to traditional spirituals.
Student leaders from Catholic schools were invited to be readers and gift bearers and read intercessory prayers.
“Today we in the Archdiocese of Atlanta gather to beg the Lord’s mercy upon (Mrs. King) and to take from her life a lesson in faith for ourselves,” Archbishop Gregory said. “We gather in the Eucharist to give thanks, first and foremost to God for raising up courageous women and men from every age to witness to the Lord’s even greater fidelity and perfect goodness.”
As the congregation prayed for the repose of the soul of Mrs. King and for the eternal life “of her beloved husband Martin,” the archbishop said, “may we take heart and indeed expand our own hearts to become ever more determined to pursue the values and the aspirations that they represented for our nation and for the world.”
“We pray that we become even more merciful people so that God’s design, rather than be frustrated by the sorrow that we feel, will find fulfillment and completion. After all, she gave us a wonderful example of just how that is possible.”
Following Mass the archbishop said that he had asked schools to send some of their student leaders to the Mass so those too young to remember Dr. King might be touched by the spark of the Kings’ legacies and think of what they can do in the future for the good of others.
“These young people need to have the opportunity to celebrate this historical moment,” he said. “They will inherit the roles of leadership and all the work is not done.”
He met Mrs. King in 1984 in Chicago when she “graciously came” to a reception for him as a new auxiliary bishop while she was in the city with Mayor Harold Washington. As a teenager in Chicago he heard Dr. King speak at rallies there and considers himself “blessed to have witnessed” some of the historic events of the time.
Dr. King was an epic figure, but others, including Mrs. King, are wrongly evaluated if held up to one yardstick, the archbishop said. “God accomplishes great things using various instruments. … Isn’t it wonderful God made us different. How boring it would be if we were all the same.”
The archdiocese of today is radically different from the archdiocese in the 1960s, he said, and the challenges of social justice now include that of justice to recent immigrants.
“While respecting the integrity of our national laws, we cannot overlook their human dignity nor can we overlook the contributions they are already making,” he said.
“To be the archbishop of Atlanta is to inherit the legacy of the civil rights struggle and to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors, in particular, Archbishop (Paul) Hallinan, who would have been here at the time,” the archbishop reflected.
However, he said, “I have to also move forward. We are, as an archdiocese, different, very different, from the ‘60s.”
The tremendous racial and ethnic diversity of the archdiocese today and the size of the archdiocese present him with the central challenge to “remind us we are one archdiocese” and “for us to acknowledge and rejoice in our diversity—that here is something God-given” while also seeking in the Eucharist the source of the church’s life and unity.
Blessed Trinity High School junior Nicholas Johnson, who gave one of the intercessory prayers, was grateful to come to the memorial Mass.
“The reason I wanted to go is that the family in itself had a great impact on the civil rights movement. … It kind of has an effect that you would want to do the same for future generations,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind being involved in politics and helping others. … I like the idea of being involved in government.”
“What I have read (of King’s writings) is very profound and it is interesting how most of what he said is fulfilled today,” the Roswell student said. “I was just glad I was able to participate.”
Our Lady of Mercy High School, Fairburn, youth minister Mark Tolcher and religion teacher Marie Lambert brought eight “outstanding” students, Catholic and non-Catholic.
“Our children were outstanding in their character. … They were chosen because they wanted to go. They were chosen because of their acceptance and spirituality, accepting other religions and other students, just branching out and accepting others. They are outstanding academically and in diversity,” Lambert said.
They were moved by “the archbishop, the singing, the Spelman Glee Club choir,” she said. “The liturgy, they felt, was very alive and apropos to the culture as well as all-embracing.”
Father David Musso, SM, chaplain at the Marist School, Atlanta, said he and the students who went were touched by “the stunning and profound Mass.”
“They loved the music, especially the Communion meditation song,” he said. “I know they appreciated being part of” this historic Mass.