When nationwide riots followed King's assassination in Memphis in 1968, Coretta King watched with disappointment, but never despair. She was troubled by black-on-black crime, but she remained ever hopeful that it would diminish.
I visited her in her home after her husband's death.
"So many people lost hope when Martin was killed," she lamented. "But I never did. My husband was committed to the end, and I remain devoted to nonviolence.
"We have known great success, and we have known great sadness. All of it has brought progress to America and to the world. The movement brought us great joy and bottomless sorrow. But we knew from the beginning there would be a price to pay for progress. We knew the risks, and we were determined not to let violence or anything else turn us away from our goal of full equality. There's still a lot of work to be done. The path to progress is strewn with obstacles, but we have learned to overcome them. We will go forward."
Coretta King paused, and smiled at a picture of children marching in a long line for freedom. The picture hung on the office wall in her home. Then she turned back to me and said:
"I'm so proud of our commitment to God and to our country. I have my family, and I am proud that we have stood for something. I truly believe that we have had a great impact on this nation, and we have shown the world what a great country America really is. This is a land capable of change, and we have been a part of that change," she said quietly.
She said she felt the sting of criticism received from militant factions at the edge of the movement. She said she understood the frustration when marchers were beaten and their homes bombed. She said that all of the violence was a part of the movement and that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was strong enough to withstand it.
You saw her in the front lines, marching, singing, demanding equality before the law. She didn't ask the thousands of other women, black and white, who were an important part of the movement to go out front. She went out front with them and marched arm-in-arm, step-by-step, challenging the system that kept a foot on the necks of her people. She faced the Southern sheriffs and bigots, and she did it with a special dignity and grace. There was no malice in her eyes or her heart.
She was a woman of courage, and commitment, and a quiet but spectacular charisma. Whenever I saw her, there was an unusual sparkle in her soft eyes. It was a privilege and a pleasure to meet the entire King family through the years. It may sound trite to suggest they were unique, but it is true. You could bomb their home, murder their family members, assassinate King, and that family just kept moving forward to help bring about equality and establish a more just America.
In King's absence, the movement went forward. But without its dynamic leader, the progress was sporadic and uncertain. There were good days and dismal days. The SCLC had lost its way.
Still, Coretta King, an iron lady, stood unyielding. She tried to inject cohesiveness into the group, but was only occasionally successful. She made speeches here and there, trying to keep King's many followers fully focused. But she was now 78 years old, and she was spent. All the long years of turmoil and trouble began to wear on Coretta King. She tired easily now.
In August, she suffered a heart attack quickly followed by a stroke. Then, toward the end of last month, it became obvious she was not going to last much longer.
Two days ago, Bernice Albertine King, Coretta Scott King's youngest daughter, went to check on her mom and realized she was not breathing.
Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, who had been a key King assistant through all the dangers, announced with a heartfelt dignity that the mother of the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King, was dead.
Now the question is: Without her to breathe life into it, where will the movement find breathing space in the future?
Contact Claude Lewis at Clewis97@ptd.net.