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Coretta Scott King Dies At 78

Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has died, five months after suffering a stroke and heart attack. She was 78.

"We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," the King family said in a statement. The family said early Tuesday that she died overnight.

She stood by her husband's side during the '50s and '60s and after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, became a powerful civil rights advocate in her own right.

President Bush began his State of the Union speech Tuesday night with a solemn mention of the nation's loss of Coretta Scott King and earlier, in a written statement, called her "a remarkable and courageous woman, and a great civil rights leader." Mr. Bush said her "lasting contributions to freedom and equality have made America a better and more compassionate nation."

King worked to keep her husband's ideology of equality for all people at the forefront of the nation's agenda. She goaded and pushed for more than a decade to have her husband's birthday observed as a national holiday, then watched with pride in 1983 as President Reagan signed the bill into law. The first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986.

"This woman must be looked up as one of these founding mothers of the new America," longtime family friend Congressman Joe Lewis told CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts. "She helped to liberate us all."

She became a symbol of her husband's struggle for peace and brotherhood, presiding with a quiet, steady, stoic presence over seminars and conferences on global issues.

"I'm more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality," King said soon after his slaying, a demonstration of the strong will that lay beneath the placid calm and dignity of her character.

She was devoted to her children and considered them her first responsibility. But she also wrote a book, "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr."

Senator Barak Obama, D-Ill., told CBS News that without people like Coretta Scott King, he would not be where he is today.

"She really was not just the wife of MLK, she was his full partner, and carried on that legacy after his death in a remarkable way," Obama said.

Pitts reports King once told her that she only intended on marrying a preacher, not the leader of the civil rights movement, but that she prayed one day she would grow into the job.

One of her crowning achievements was the creation of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, CBS News correspondent Alison Harmelin reports.

King saw to it that the center became deeply involved with the issues she said breed violence — hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism.

"The center enables us to go out and struggle against the evils in our society," she often said.

After her stroke, King missed the annual King holiday celebration in Atlanta earlier this month, but she did appear with her children at an awards dinner a couple of days earlier, smiling from her wheelchair but not speaking. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

At the same time, the King Center's board of directors was considering selling the site to the National Park Service to let the family focus less on grounds maintenance and more on King's message. But two of the four children were strongly against such a move.

King was born April 27, 1927, in Perry County, Ala. Her father ran a country store. To help her family during the Depression, young Coretta picked cotton.

She was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music and planning on a singing career when a friend introduced her to Martin Luther King, a young Baptist minister working toward a Ph.D. at Boston University.

"She said she wanted me to meet a very promising young minister from Atlanta," King once said, adding with a laugh, "I wasn't interested in meeting a young minister at that time."

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 — June 18, 1953 — they did, in the garden of her parents' home in Marion, Ala.

The couple then moved to Montgomery, Ala., where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and organized the famed Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. With that campaign, King began enacting his philosophy of direct social action.

The couple's first child, Yolanda Denise, was born that same year. She was followed by Martin III, born in 1957; Dexter Scott, born in 1961; and Bernice Albertine, born in 1963.

During the years, King was with her husband in his finest hours. She was at his side as he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Sporting flat-heeled shoes, King marched beside her husband from Selma, Ala., into Montgomery in 1965 for the triumphal climax to his drive for a voting rights law.

Trained in music, she sang in many concerts and narrated civil rights history to raise money for the cause.

Only days after his death, she flew to Memphis with three of her children to lead the march of thousands in honor of her slain husband and to plead for his cause. Her unfaltering composure and controlled grief during those days stirred the hearts of millions.

"I think you rise to the occasion in a crisis," she once said. "I think the Lord gives you strength when you need it. God was using us — and now he's using me, too."

She said her life without her husband, though drastically changed, was immensely fulfilling.

"It's a fulfilling life in so many ways, in terms of the children, the nonviolent civil rights cause and in the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial center," she said.

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