Coretta Scott, widow of Martin Luther King, dies aged 78

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The Independent US

From across the spectrum of American society tributes were paid yesterday to Coretta Scott King, wife of the famed civil rights leader, who died after suffering six months of poor health. She was aged 78 and suffered both a stroke and a heart attack last summer.

She married Martin Luther King in 1953 and supported him through the most tumultuous years of the civil rights struggle.

After he was assassinated in 1968 she fought persistently and at times aggressively to protect his legacy and for the establishment of a national holiday in his honour, enshrined by legislation in 1986.

"This is a very sad hour," Congressman John Lewis, himself a veteran of the civil rights movement, told CNN. "She was the glue. Long before she met and married Martin Luther King Jr, she was an activist."

Former president Jimmy Carter said: "A partner with her husband as he fought for equality for his people, throughout her life Mrs King has been a mainstay of the movement for non- violent political change. She was a strong, caring, and inspirational woman, whose legacy will be remembered for generations to come."

Mrs King died on Monday night in Mexico, where she was undergoing rehabilitation treatment. She was last seen in public at a dinner in Atlanta on 14 January.

Yesterday flags at the city's Martin Luther King Jr Centre for Nonviolent Social Change, which she founded after her husband's death, were lowered to half mast. Her family said in a statement: "We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country."

The young Coretta Scott was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music and was planning on a singing career when a friend introduced her to her future husband, a Baptist minister studying at Boston University. She recalled that on their first date he told her: "You know, you have everything I ever wanted in a woman. We ought to get married someday." Eighteen months later they tied the knot at her parents' home in Marion, Alabama.

The couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where Dr King helped organise the city's bus boycott in 1955, triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Then, and throughout many of his finest hours, she was at her husband's side - including his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the Selma-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965.

Shortly after Dr King was shot dead in Memphis, she said: "I'm more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality."

In the ensuing years Mrs King and her four children did not escape controversy and were often accused of profiteering from her husband's legacy and tightly controlling the copyright and access to his speeches and papers. In 1988, she sued Boston University to retrieve papers donated by Dr King. But such episodes are unlikely to dent Mrs King's reputation, especially as the tributes to her continue to pour in.

The Rev Jesse Jackson said she was an enduring freedom fighter. "An angel has taken flight. She will be sorely missed," he said. "To observe her handle the highs and lows of life with dignity was a lesson watching someone master fate with faith."

The writer Maya Angelou told ABC Television: "It's a bleak morning for me and for many people and yet it's a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was."