Civil rights leader Coretta Scott King dies

The widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she carried on his work in civil rights after his death.

Jeannine Aquino

Coretta Scott King, often called the first lady of the civil rights movement, died in her sleep Tuesday morning at a holistic health center in Mexico. She was 78.

King, who had been battling advanced ovarian cancer, died of respiratory failure, Santa Monica Health Institute doctors told The Associated Press.

Luis Rosario, a nursing junior and member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, said he was shocked to hear about King’s death.

Rosario said it was strange her death happened so close to Black History Month.

“At first, I was surprised,” Rosario said. “But, what better way (for King) to enter the next world?”

Yolanda Y. Williams, a teaching specialist at the African-American and African studies department said, “It’s hard because you have these symbols, and symbols are so easy to keep alive until you hear that they’ve died.”

King filled the spot vacated in the civil rights movement after her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968. She continued his fight for human rights and equality for the rest of her life.

Just months after her husband was killed, she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The center educates the community on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and mission. It draws nearly 600,000 visitors annually, according to the King Center Web site.

Coretta Scott King has since traveled the world speaking on behalf of global issues such as racial and economic justice, women’s and children’s rights, gay and lesbian dignity and the needs of the poor and homeless.

“She had worked harder than most people do to keep the dream of Martin Luther King, her husband, alive,” Williams said. “She continued her partnership even when he had gone on.”

President George W. Bush, in a statement released by the White House on Tuesday, called Coretta Scott King a “remarkable and courageous woman, and a great civil rights leader.”

“She carried on the legacy of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including through her extraordinary work at the King Center,” he said. “Mrs. King’s lasting contributions to freedom and equality have made America a better and more compassionate nation.”

King’s other accomplishments include honorary doctorates from more than 60 colleges and universities and meetings with spiritual leaders such as Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama and Dorothy Day. She also stood with Nelson Mandela when he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Rosario, who thinks there should eventually be a Coretta Scott King day, said, “It seems like her name hides in the shadow of Martin Luther King. But it shouldn’t.”

First-year psychology and Black Student Union member Brenda Senyana said, “We’re very thankful for her 78 years on earth.”

“Not many people can say when they die that they impacted thousands of people, but she can,” Senyana said.

Williams talked about another civil rights icon who died last year.

“We lost Rosa Parks not long ago, and as these symbols of the civil rights era leave us, we begin to forget that the struggle is ongoing,” she said. “The struggle is not related to any one human being.”

Williams cautions that people should remain aware of civil rights issues.

“History has taught us as soon as we think the struggle for humanity is over, that is when you allow inhumanity to proliferate.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.