By Eileen FitzGerald, THE NEWS-TIMES
Danbury area residents say they will remember Coretta Scott King as a woman of action and conviction and a role model and icon for both civil and human rights. King died Monday. She was 78. "She wasn’t the woman behind the man — she was the woman next to the man," Averell Manes, associate professor of social sciences at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, said.
As a widow, she created her own legacy in civil rights advocacy, said John Brittain, an attorney who led the successful plaintiffs’ case of Sheff vs. O’Neill to integrate Connecticut public schools and chief counsel for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "She broke the male domination of black civil rights leaders," from Roy Wilkins to Whitney Young with only Dorothy Height and Marian Wright Edelman among the women.
Scott, who was recovering from a stroke and heart attack she suffered in August, died in her sleep during the night at an alternative medicine clinic in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, her family said. Doctors at the clinic said King was battling advanced ovarian cancer when she arrived there Thursday and likely died from respiratory failure.
Arrangements were being made to fly the body back to Atlanta. She is survived by her four children, Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice.
King was born April 27, 1927 in Perry County, Ala. and worked in the cotton fields on her father’s farm. She graduated from Antioch College in Ohio and met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while working on a graduate degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. They were married in Atlanta on June 18, 1953.
In the 1950s, the two traveled to Ghana to mark that country’s independence and spent a month in India studying Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolence as guests of Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru.
In the 1960s, she was Women’s Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference held in Geneva, Switzerland. During civil rights’ marches, she recited poetry, sang and gave lectures on the civil rights movement. She also spoke at events her husband could not fulfill.
"America lost a great icon — not black America, all America. She represents the quiet strength that was behind the movement. She was for equal rights for everyone,” said the Rev. Ivan Pitts, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Danbury. "She gave Dr. King strength and the whole movement strength. She’s almost like a rushing wind. You don’t see her as much but feel her influence."
Pitts called her a role model, especially for women. "She’s the symbol of someone who is self actualized, who realizes that life is more than being about yourself. It’s about making a difference in the lives of others,” he said. "She was able to find her own voice. She showed that she could be supportive of her spouse and have an identity for herself.”
Pitts said Coretta King expanded her work beyond civil rights to embrace human rights.
"She deliberately expanded to all people, to the union work in Memphis, to poor whites. As he spoke out against Vietnam, she spoke out against Iraq,” he said.
After her husband’s assassination in 1968, King began her work to expand upon her husband’s philosophy of nonviolence. She was arrested for protesting apartheid in South Africa, and she served on international committees working for peace. She also led a march on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, spoke at an anti-Vietnam war rally in New York and helped launch the march on Washington of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Often called "the first lady of the civil rights movement," King led a successful effort to establish a national holiday in her husband’s honor and founded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. "I idolized her. She was role model for me. It’s a great lost to the African American people and to all people," said Danbury High School assistant principal Jesse Ballenger.
Ballenger said King will have her own legacy.
"She continued his legacy of nonviolence and bringing people together. She traveled the world to Europe and Asia to speak the word of nonviolence and peace," Ballenger said. "She was for women rights, for gay rights, for those with disabilities. We have lost a wonderful, wonderful person who fought for human rights.”
King also co-chaired the Full Employment Action Council in 1974, which brought together more than 100 organizations to address religious, labor, civil and women’s rights, and in 1988, she served as head of the U.S. delegation of Women for a Meaningful Summit in Athens, Greece.
King received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities and authored three books. She served on and helped found organizations that include the Black Leadership Forum, the National Black Coalition for Voter Participation and the Black Leadership Roundtable.
Danbury superintendent Eddie Davis said this will be the time to reflect on King’s legacy.
"Now is the opportunity to have deeper thoughts on what her work has been after he died. Rosa Parks has passed. Now Coretta. What is evident to me is the number of distinguished black Americans who are dying,” Davis said. "Hopefully, we will embrace their work and think of their contributions, They were major contributors to civil rights and to the dignity of all people in this country.”
For Brian Simalchik, a 17-year-old senior at Danbury High school, King connected him to her husband. "She was the last link to an amazing legacy that Martin Luther King Jr. left to me. She went through it all. It makes you think how much time has passed. He made amazing strides, but there is so much work left to do. We’re not even nearly where we need to be to have all people totally equally,” he said.
Diana Burgos, a resident of Danbury, called King a role model for her. "She was dignified, in the way she always carried herself, no matter what,” Burgos said. "She always had a sense of her self and self worth and held her head high. She stayed in the struggle."