BY ADELLE M. BANKS                                                                                      © 2006 Religion News Service

oretta Scott King, who died Tuesday January 31, held firmly to her faith as one of the nation's most famous pastor's wives before becoming a civil rights leader in her own right.

Leaders with connections to the King family and the civil rights movement recalled how the 78-year-old widow of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., blended a commitment to her marriage with a determination to achieve justice for others.

Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, said he asked her how she handled having a husband who was away so often, working on movement causes. "She said, `Let me tell you something, I did not just marry a man. I married a destiny,"' he recalled.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, director of the African-American studies program at Colby College, said the significance of the Kings' partnership will continue to be a subject of research and education.

"She went into that marriage with the gift of her own progressive education and her own skills and talents and she used them marvelously for our freedom," said Gilkes, who teaches in Waterville, Maine.

The widow of the civil rights leader assassinated in 1968 had her own experiences with racism that led her to strive for justice along with her husband. Since Coretta Scott King grew up in rural Alabama, she "probably saw more rigid, vile prejudice and discrimination than did King 'cause King grew up in the city," said Bishop Woodie W. White, a retired United Methodist bishop who lives in Atlanta, the hometown of Martin Luther King Jr.

White, who attended meetings with Martin Luther King Jr., to plan a civil rights march in Detroit months before the 1963 March on Washington, writes an annual "Dear Martin" column updating the status of race relations.

"One of the things that I observed over the years after Dr. King's death was that the causes for which King had become renowned were actually her causes as well" White said. "She didn't just carry on his legacy. She carried on the fight against injustice because that was who she was as a person."

Often photographed on the arm of her husband at the front of civil rights marches, Coretta Scott King sacrificed a career as a classical vocalist as well as the privacy of her family for the public role to which she ascended with her husband. After Martin Luther King's death, she was behind efforts to honor his memory with a national holiday and establish an Atlanta-based center in his name to encourage social change without violence.

On Tuesday, praise for Coretta Scott King crossed racial lines. Said Clarence Jones, a former adviser with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference her husband helped found: "Coretta was the bedrock of the household and family of Martin Luther King Jr. ... She was also a source of invaluable advice and support to Dr. King's leadership of the civil rights movement."

Added Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission: "Together, Dr. and Mrs. King did more for racial reconciliation in this nation than any couple in our history. As anyone in ministry knows, it would have been impossible for Dr. King to carry out his ministry to the nation and the world without the invaluable support and counsel of his wife."

Bishop Vinton Anderson, a retired African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop who lives in St. Louis, was among those impressed by Coretta Scott King's commitment before and after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death.

"It always seemed obvious to us who knew them that Coretta was completely dedicated to the work of her husband," Anderson said. "I think you can't ask for more than that."

The Rev. Shelley Henderson, founder of the First Ladies Summit, an annual Washington gathering of wives of pastors of prominent African-American churches, saw her as the key role model for her group. "She is the ultimate first lady," said Henderson, who was "devastated" by the news of Coretta Scott King's death. Last February, Henderson had invited her to speak at the summit held on the weekend of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

As Coretta Scott King's health declined, Henderson learned she would not be able to address the group. "I knew that she had wisdom that she could share with them," said Henderson. "One sentence from her, I thought, could take them through the next 10 or 20 years."



 
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