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United Methodists mourn death of Coretta Scott King

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Web Only Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is shown at a press conference in Atlanta Jan 11, 1986, to launch a 10-day celebration for the first national holiday for Dr. King.

Jan. 31, 2006

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is being remembered by United Methodists as a strong woman of faith who “answered a hard call at a high price.”

King, 78, died Jan. 30 at a rehabilitation center in Mexico. She had suffered a heart attack and stroke last August and had been recovering at her home in Atlanta since September.

After her stroke, King missed the annual King holiday celebration in Atlanta Jan. 16, but she did appear with her children at an awards dinner a couple of days earlier. News reports said the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

The King family issued a statement following her death stating: “We appreciate the prayers and condolence from people across the country.” Funeral arrangements were still pending.

“Mrs. King was a regal personality,” said Bishop Woodie White, who is retired and serving as bishop-in-residence at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Each year, White writes a “birthday letter” to King. White was the first top staff executive of the denomination’s racial equality monitoring agency, the Commission on Religion and Race.

“She carried on the King legacy in a way that made it more focused,” he said. Her effort to establish the King Center and her fight to establish King’s birthday as a national holiday is “a lasting legacy to Dr. King.”

“She will be sorely missed by all of us who had such admiration for Dr. King and for her as well,” said Bishop Melvin Talbert, executive director of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. “She was one of those quiet voices in the background, but whenever she spoke, you would listen because you knew she had something to say.”

Those who remember the contributions Mrs. King made to the civil rights movement said she wasn’t “just the woman behind the man.”

M. Garlinda Burton, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, said Mrs. King was often seen as the “unsung hero and torch bearer.

"I hope she will be remembered not only as the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I hope she will be remembered as a woman of courage and vision, passion and Christian witness in her own right. She wasn't just the woman behind the man; she was a soldier for peace and justice in her own right."

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Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly
Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly, the first African-American woman elected a United Methodist bishop, said, “We have lost a very strong, powerful woman.” Kelly said she knew Mrs. King because they were often involved in some of the same things.

“She was powerful person, she was a great mother. She had the same vision as her husband, and she supported him and continued the work. I regret her passing, but I have no doubts she gave this life all she could give it.”

Mrs. King received an honorary doctorate degree from historically black United Methodist-related Bennett College in 2003. She also spoke during the college’s lecture series in 2002.

“News of the passing of Mrs. Coretta Scott King went straight to that place in the heart of everyone in the Bennett College family where tears are made,” said Johnnetta B. Cole,
president of Bennett College, Greensboro, N.C. “As we grieve the physical loss of Mrs. King, an extraordinary and beloved champion of civil rights and human rights, we must renew our own efforts to be effective drum majors for peace, drum majors for justice, and drum majors for righteous.”

Others echoed Cole’s call to renew the efforts for civil rights.

“I have long been concerned about the changing of the guard,” said the Rev. Safiyah Fosua, director of Invitational Preaching Ministries at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, Nashville, Tenn.

With the deaths of Mrs. King and Rosa Parks earlier this year, she said, “There is a void, almost a vacuum. I am not sure we are equipped to make the level of sacrifice that is required.”

Fosua said Mrs. King dedicated her life to the movement. “She answered a hard call at a high price.”

Walter Kimbrough Jr., president of historically black United Methodist-related Philander Smith College, Little Rock, Ark., said persons like Mrs. King and Rosa Parks are “civil rights icons.”

“While we remember all of their accomplishments it really becomes now a much more immediate call to the next generation to step up in those roles. We have to stop waiting for those persons to appear and become those persons.”

Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said the passing of Mrs. King and Parks “reminds us that a generation civil rights leaders and giants are leaving the scene.”

“We need to rededicate ourselves to the struggle for full civil rights,” he said. He said it was a top priority for the board to seek a strong voting rights act in 2006. “It is going to be the reauthorization of previous voting rights act, it has to be a strong act because there are still barriers to voting and equal access to the electoral process for all people. The struggle is not over.”

Mrs. King was born in Marion, Ala., on April 27, 1927. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She received a B.A. in music and education and then studied concert singing at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She got a degree in voice and violin, according to her official biography.

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A UMNS photo by Dan Gangler

Bishop Woodie White, writes a "birthday letter" to the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. every year.
It was while she was attending the conservatory that she met Martin Luther King Jr., a theology student at Boston University. They married on June 18, 1953, in her hometown of Marion.

Mrs. King worked closely with her husband organizing marches and sit-ins at segregated restaurants while raising their four children: Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott and Bernice Albertine.

Mrs. King performed in “Freedom Concerts,” singing and reading poetry to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization which King led as its first president.

“She wore her grief with dignity,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader who organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King in news interviews. “She moved quietly but forcefully into the fray. She stood for peace in the midst of turmoil.”

The president of the National Council of Churches USA, the Rev. Michael E. Livingston, said, “Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a beacon of light and defender of truth and righteousness. She touched many lives and we will never forget her tireless efforts to advance the dream and vision of equality and justice for all people.”

“She was not simply carrying on the King legacy as much as she was carrying on the legacy for which King stood--nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation, especially reconciliation among all people of the world,” White said. “She was a gift in her own right.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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