Coretta King's Death Puts Spotlight on Legacy Center

Coretta Scott King was the keeper of her late husband's legacy of racial equality and nonviolence, and some believe she could still play that role in death, even as the future of the King Center she founded remains unclear.

With her death Tuesday, the next move for the King Center — which she established shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination to keep his dream alive — is now left up to the couple's four children. However, the four have been bickering over control of the facility.

"Death sometimes moves things," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who worked alongside the slain civil rights leader at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Maybe Coretta's death can heal the rift between the children."

In recent years, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has fallen into disrepair and two of the Kings' children — Martin Luther King III and Bernice King — recently acknowledged they have been neglecting it since their mother stepped down as head of the facility in 1994.

In December, the center's board — led by their brother, Dexter King — voted to pursue a possible sale of the building to the National Park Service, a move that divided the King children.

In her final months, as her family's disagreements became public, Coretta Scott King was unable to speak because of a serious stroke suffered in August that left her partially paralyzed.

The 78-year-old matriarch died at an alternative medicine clinic in Mexico. Doctors at the clinic said King was battling advanced ovarian cancer when she arrived Thursday. They said the cause of death was respiratory failure.

Arrangements were being made to fly her body to Atlanta, where her funeral is expected to be held. Just two weeks ago, King made her first public appearance in a year, on the eve of her late husband's birthday at an awards dinner and fundraiser for the King Center.

Called the "first lady of the civil rights movement," she was a supportive lieutenant to her husband and, after his death, carried on his work while also raising their children.

Lowery said the children need to "get it together," because there is still a need for the King Center.

"The folks who make history, don't keep history," Lowery said. "The center has a great future. We must pledge our support. We need to put our money where our mouth is."

Lowery suggested the family open up the center's board of directors to "a democratic process" that includes non-family members.

Juanita Abernathy, a close friend of the family, said the King legacy cannot and should not be the responsibility of one person, or even the King children.

"We're looking for a savior, but we have the weapons to save ourselves," Abernathy said. "It's up to all of us to keep Dr. King's legacy alive."

Coretta Scott King started the King Center in the basement of the couple's home in the year following King's 1968 assassination. In 1981, the center was moved into a multimillion dollar facility on Auburn Avenue, near King's birth home and next to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he preached from 1960 until his death.

For more than two decades, the center has been a vault for those seeking the teachings of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. It draws thousands of visitors each year, many who come to pay their respects to King's husband. His tomb is surrounded by a reflecting pool in the center's courtyard.

When King's widow stepped down as head of the King Center 12 years ago, she passed the job to her youngest son, Dexter, who in turn passed the job to Martin III in 2004 to pursue an entertainment career. Martin III, who also has served as president of the SCLC, was replaced last year as head of the center by his cousin, Isaac Newton Farris Jr.

The Kings' daughters are Yolanda, an actress and Bernice, the youngest child, who is a Baptist minister in Atlanta.

As the world grieves with the King family, people should take time to reflect and recommit to King's message of peace and love, said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta, who worked with the Kings as a civil rights activist.

"Beyond the family, we as a community have to decide that we are going to recommit ourselves to those dreams and ideals that we saw in the Kings," he said. "You honor Dr. King and Mrs. King by doing their work."