The widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. was remembered for her work to keep her husband’s vision alive.
Four U.S. presidents, numerous preachers and members of Congress were among the 10,000 mourners who converged in suburban Atlanta for the funeral of a woman hailed as the “first lady” of the civil rights movement.
Coretta Scott King, 78, wife of the late Martin Luther King Jr., died Jan. 30 of pneumonia brought on by complications of ovarian cancer.
In 2005, King had suffered a heart attack and a stroke that left her partly paralyzed. She was diagnosed with cancer in November and sought alternative treatment at the Santa Monica Hospital in Rosario, Mexico, nearly a week before her death, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott met while attending college in Massachusetts. He was a doctoral student at the University of Boston, and she was attending New England’s Conservatory of Music. The two married in 1953.
Coretta Scott King’s commitment to nonviolent social change spanned some 50 years. She marched beside her husband during the tumultuous civil rights movement and continued to champion his cause when an assassin’s bullet claimed his life in 1968.
She went on to become the voice of his legacy, speaking out on issues such as racial equality, poverty, women’s and children’s rights, and health care. She successfully lobbied Congress to make her husband’s birthday a national holiday. In 1983 Congress passed a law making the third Monday in January Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Kings’ youngest daughter, the Rev. Bernice A. King, delivered the eulogy at her mother’s Celebration of Life funeral service held Feb. 7 at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, where she is a minister.
King told the crowd that her mother’s death had prophetic significance. “[God] said, Make no mistake that the very thing that took your mother out is the same thing that emerges across the nations,” she said. “The cancer was concentrated in the reproductive area.
“What God is saying to us through the transition of Coretta Scott King is that we … are suffering from complications of a cancer of materialism and … racism and violence. … It’s a cancer that’s eating away at the … nature of what God created humankind to be.”
Although King commanded national attention during her life, her passing made history. She became the first African-American and the first woman to lie in state at the Georgia Capitol, where 42,000 mourners viewed her body. The state response stood in sharp contrast to segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox’s refusal in 1968 to allow Martin Luther King Jr. to lie in state after his death.
Standing in the pulpit of the crowded, 10,000-seat sanctuary, President Bush expressed his condolences to the nation and to King’s adult children: Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice.
“Coretta had every right to count the costs and step back from the struggle,” the president said. “But she decided that her children needed more than a safe home; they needed an America that upheld their equality and wrote their rights into law.”
Dignitaries at the service included first lady Laura Bush, former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter and former President George H.W. Bush.
Other speakers included poet Maya Angelou, noted civil rights activist Andrew Young, Malaak Shabazz, daughter of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X, and Oprah Winfrey, who spoke at a memorial held Feb. 6 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. More than 115,000 flocked to the historic church to pay final respects, the AP said.
News of King’s passing prompted President Bush to order federal agencies to fly flags at half-staff, and Dekalb County Schools canceled classes Feb. 7 in honor of the funeral. Many ministers crossed denominational lines to honor King’s life and her contributions to the world.
“I know I speak for The Potter’s House congregation when I say that her untiring efforts as a leader of the civil rights movement and undying commitment to protect the dignity of a people was an inspiration to us all,” said Bishop T.D. Jakes, who also spoke during the funeral. “It was truly a blessing to recognize such a strong woman, one who laid a foundation of character and integrity for the next generation of this nation’s female leaders from all cultures and creeds.”
Valerie G. Lowe