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Friends Remember Coretta Scott King

January 31, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CORETTA SCOTT KING: For justice, truth and nonviolence everywhere.

GWEN IFILL: In the nearly 40 years that have passed since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King had become the face of her husband’s civil rights legacy.

After lobbying hard for the King birthday holiday that finally became law, in 1983, she returned each year to his Atlanta grave site to honor his memory. Like her late husband she marched and like him she gave speeches.

CORETTA SCOTT KING (Feb. 12, 1988): It was a mission of black Americans during the civil rights movement not merely to obtain our freedom but to expand democracy for all Americans.

GWEN IFILL: In the years after his assassination, Coretta Scott King was transformed into a civil rights activist in her own right, speaking out against apartheid abroad and for women’s issues at home.

CORETTA SCOTT KING: I always believed from a youngster that there was a purpose for my life, that there’s a purpose for each one of our lives. We have to seek that purpose.

In the process of getting married to Martin Luther King Jr., and the movement getting started, I felt that that was my purpose — my purpose had been discovered to be the wife of a minister because I believe that a minister’s wife should be just as committed as her husband, and feeling that this was my purpose, to be at the side of Martin Luther King Jr., through whatever trials and tribulations and struggles that we endured was part of God’s will for me.

GWEN IFILL: Coretta Scott, a child of the segregated South, walked five miles to get to school in Marion, Alabama, while white students rode buses to schools closer by.

She graduated at the top her high school class, earned a scholarship to Antioch College in Ohio and later to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. There she met Martin Luther King Jr., a theology student at Boston University.

On their first date, she later said, he told her: “The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all.”

They married in 1953, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and quickly became enmeshed in the modern civil rights movement. Mrs. King helped organize marches and sit-ins at segregated restaurants, all while raising four children. But the threat of violence often shadowed their lives.

CORETTA SCOTT KING (March 22, 1956): All along I have supported my husband in this cause. At this point I feel even stronger about the cause and whatever happens to him, it happens to me.

GWEN IFILL: She was at her husband’s side for most of the major events of the civil rights movement including the 1963 march and rally on the Washington Mall.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I have a dream. That one day –

GWEN IFILL: But her life changed forever on April 4, 1968 when Assassin James Earl Ray fired the bullet that killed Martin Luther King in Memphis.

In the years that followed, she took up the mantel of his dream, founding the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1969.

In 1984, she was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington while demonstrating for an end to apartheid.

CORETTA SCOTT KING: Our government must take a position against the killing, the brutal treatment, the lack of representation and disrespect by that government for citizens who belong to that great nation.

GWEN IFILL: Later in life she became an advocate for gay rights and the fight against AIDS.

CORETTA SCOTT KING (Aug. 23, 2003): We must make our hearts instruments of peace and nonviolence because when the heart is right, the mind and the body will follow.

GWEN IFILL: Mrs. King suffered a stroke and a heart attack last August. Her last appearance in public was on Jan. 14 when she had attended a dinner in Atlanta as part of the Martin Luther King Day celebrations.

Coretta Scott King died last night as an alternative medicine clinic in Mexico. Doctors there say she was battling ovarian cancer. She was 78 years old.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the life and times of Mrs. King, we are joined by two friends of the family: The Reverend Joseph Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, and led the organization for 20 years. And Johnnetta Cole is president of Bennett College, a historically black liberal arts institution for women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Rev. Lowery, what is the legacy that Coretta Scott King leaves behind?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, it’s a compounded legacy. She was a great wife. Martin couldn’t have chosen — I believe just as God married Martin and Montgomery, he chose Coretta for Martin. And she was the perfect wife for him in the struggle.

She was a great mother, and then when Martin passed away, was killed, she carried her grief with such dignity and her growing influence with such humility.

So she was a great mother, a great wife, and in her own right she became the sentimental symbol of the civil rights movement as the first First Lady of the movement.

And her legacy must include all of these facets of her marvelous life as a wonderful, beautiful woman whom I visited with my wife two or three weeks ago and she was beautiful. She walked on her own strength down the hall, long hall, to greet us in the living room, and she almost collapsed in a chair because she was weak from the effort.

But that kind of determination characterized Coretta Scott King. And as she fought for the holiday, fought and supported those who were leading movements, she became herself an icon and a great inspiration to millions of people.

GWEN IFILL: Johnnetta Cole, I’m struck by the term that Rev. Lowery used, a “sentimental symbol.” What do you think he means by that? Take off on that for me.

JOHNNETTA COLE: There’s nothing wrong with feeling emotion, with being sentimental, with feeling love for someone who is so in her own right strength with compassion, staying the course with always opening to new possibilities.

Yes, she was a symbol. But I think perhaps more than anything else, for me, Sister Coretta Scott King symbolizes the possibility that each of us has, that each woman has, to indeed in some way make the world far better.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Cole, was she the power behind the throne as people like to describe wives? Or was she someone who was actually side by side with Rev. King?

JOHNNETTA COLE: All of the images that we receive, we see Coretta Scott King with one arm locked in the arm of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the other side you may see Rev. Joseph Lowery or you may see Ambassador Young or you may see John Lewis. The photographs tell it all. She was not behind. She was to his side.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Lowery, the civil rights movement in the 1960s was kind of a men’s club. What was the role for the wives of especially someone like Coretta Scott King?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, she was a great source of strength for Martin. I agree with Dr. Cole that she stood by his side.

But she also knew when to step back and let him take the front steps. And she knew when to come in and be a part of the movement. She knew when to encourage him and she also knew when to discourage him.

She was a great source of strength for him. But I don’t want you to forget now, under Martin’s leadership SCLC was the first major civil rights organization to have a woman executive director in Ella Baker, but I do admit that women did not play the role they should have played out front, although they were great sources of strength for the men who were out front.

And thank God for women like Coretta Scott King. She sort of epitomized the essence of the strong, black woman in our history who, for one reason or the other, lost their men either from slave-snatching or assassination as Martin experienced. She left a great legacy of courage, humility, strength and beauty.

GWEN IFILL: You know, in fact, Dr. Cole, it strikes me that one of the things that Coretta Scott King also symbolized, she was one of the three widows: there was Myrlie Evers-Williams, obviously Medgar Evers’ widow; there was Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow; and then there was Coretta Scott King. Did they have a collective impact on the sensibilities of the movement?

JOHNNETTA COLE: I don’t think there’s any question. Of course they did. And those three women, it is my understanding, had a very special relationship among themselves.

But when I think of each of them, I think of the choice that they made. After all, they could have wallowed in their grief. But each chose a different path, and that is to move forward, to continue a struggle.

And today, as I think about Mrs. Coretta Scott King, I think most of all of how she stayed the course for 40 years following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She moved forward, innovating, creating, building and in a very definitive way taking on issues and questions which Dr. King never addressed, largely in my view because they were not issues of that time.

But she took them on: AIDS, homophobia. These were things that Coretta Scott King stood for. And at the same time she never let up on the question of nonviolent social change.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Lowery, we have heard and read a great deal lately about what is happening at the King Center. Obviously, Coretta Scott King’s baby that she created in 1969, that there’s a family feud that there is some effort to try to sell it to the Park Service to put it basically put Humpty Dumpty back together again because it’s deteriorated so. What is the status of the King Center tonight?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, you know, I think there’s a heated discussion, a warm discussion, among the siblings which is not uncommon among siblings. I had a few with my own siblings. And they’re going to work it out.

I think the main challenge to the center now– and Coretta’s death may sort of push it along, as death sometimes does — is to get a board of directors that is stable and responsible and intelligent and democratically structured so that no one person controls the board and then to make the decision about its relationship to the federal government.

There’s really nothing terrible about the people of this country through their government seeing that this shrine, this place that we all call precious and sacred because of Martin Luther king and Coretta, nothing wrong with the people seeing that it’s maintained while the board would be responsible for program and policy. I think they’ll work it out.

And it will once again become the institution that Coretta envisioned, being a library to keep the archives and the records and letting young people flow through there, being exposed to the efficacy of nonviolence in achieving social change.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Cole, if you had your way and you could find some way to outline what the future of this legacy should be, what the debate should be from now on, aside from whatever happens with the King Center itself, thinking as you do about Coretta Scott King tonight, what would you like to see it be?

JOHNNETTA COLE: Well, first, I would say that Coretta Scott King at a moment when our nation is at war, spoke out consistently against war. It took a lot of courage for her to do it but she always found that courage.

At a moment when some would say that the struggle for equal rights for African- Americans is a struggle won, Coretta Scott King always had the courage to say, but that battle is not yet won.

And I think we must remember that she rarely failed to be in touch with her own soul as a woman. And though she may not have spoken in specific terms about women’s rights, the very way that she carried herself said she had her rights.

And so I think her legacy is indeed in that wonderful, precious and powerful arena of peace with justice for all.

GWEN IFILL: Johnnetta Cole, Joseph Lowery, thank you both very much.

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Thank you.

JOHNNETTA COLE: Thank you.