Almost 20 years ago Coretta Scott King brought her message of nonviolence to Anderson University. Many local residents vividly recall her visit and the significance of her words to the graduating class. King, 78, the widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died Monday at a clinic in Mexico. During her commencement address at AU in 1986, King urged students to be activists in nonviolent causes. She said her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was dedicated to the responsibility of Christian service and was actively resistant of evil and injustice. “Nonviolence is active ... not passive,” she told the graduates. “It confronts injustice with love and respect for the other person. You never get rid of an enemy with enmity.” King received an honorary degree from Anderson University that day. (Photo: Coretta Scott King speaks to the class of 1986 in Warner Auditorium)
She will be remembered as a woman who stood by her husband through difficult times, recalled Bill Raymore, executive director of the Urban League of Madison County. He noted that she was raising young children when Dr. King was leading the civil rights movement.
“She was a courageous individual,” Raymore said. “She kept his vision alive through her involvement. She was strong-willed.”
King picked up where her husband left off, he said. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
“She will be remembered for her own contributions to the civil rights movement,” Raymore said.
Among the people inside Warner Auditorium in 1986 was Dr. James Edwards, now the president of Anderson University.
“It was a high moment for us to have her come to Anderson University,” he said of King’s visit. “I remember her being very stately, someone quiet spoken with great dignity. Her message was one that extended the emphasis that was the focus of her late husband’s life.”
Coretta Scott King was the living symbol of Dr. King, Edwards said.
“She stood by her man, to use an old cliché,” he said. “When death took away a leader in the civil rights movement, he was frozen in time. She was the conduit to the memory that was Dr. King.”
At an emotional time in the nation’s history, both Coretta Scott King and Dr. King were very articulate and dignified, said Edwards.
Douglas Nelson, a political science professor at AU, read the honorary degree that King was given.
“She was very gracious,” he said. “She carried the attention that was shifted to her with grace and dignity.”
King attempted to carry on her husband’s legacy and stepped into the limelight reluctantly, Nelson said.
“She emerged from the background and kept some order to the process,” he said. “She forced us to think about the positive things he did.”
King was described as a gracious, gentle person by Judge Dennis Carroll, who attended her commencement address.
“I remember her as being modest,” he said, “almost embarrassed by the attention she was receiving. When she was thrust into the limelight, she carried on his legacy.”
King has stature in her own right by her continued emphasis on nonviolent change and the need to turn the other cheek, Carroll said.
The “first lady of the civil rights movement” died in her sleep during the night at an alternative medicine clinic in Mexico, her family said. Arrangements were being made to fly the body back to Atlanta.
She had been recovering from a serious stroke and heart attack suffered last August. Just two weeks ago, she made her first public appearance in a year on the eve of her late husband’s birthday.
Doctors at the clinic said King was battling advanced ovarian cancer when she arrived there on Thursday. The doctors said the cause of death was respiratory failure.
News of her death led to tributes to King across Atlanta, including a moment of silence in the Georgia Capitol and piles of flowers placed at the tomb of her slain husband. Flags at the King Center — the institute devoted to the civil rights leader’s legacy — were lowered to half-staff.
“She wore her grief with grace. She exerted her leadership with dignity,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King’s husband in 1957.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King’s top aides, said Coretta Scott King’s fortitude rivaled that of her husband. “She was strong if not stronger than he was,” Young said.
Coretta Scott King was a supportive lieutenant to her husband during the most dangerous and tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, and after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, she carried on his work while also raising their four children.
“I’m more determined than ever that my husband’s dream will become a reality,” the young widow said soon after his slaying.
She pushed and goaded politicians for more than a decade to have her husband’s birthday observed as a national holiday, achieving success in 1986. In 1969 she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and used it to confront hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism.
“The center enables us to go out and struggle against the evils in our society,” she often said.
— KEN de la BASTIDE is a reporter with the Anderson Herald-Bulletin (www.theheraldbulletin.com). The Associated Press contributed to this article.