You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo. I'm like Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees." For an opening line, it was worse than lame. Fortunately for Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott did not slam down the phone.
"We considered her the first lady of the movement," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a cofounder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The rank was hers through association, "but then she earned it." A shy woman, she took up the cause of her murdered husband even as she raised four children. And though never the formal head of the movement, she "became a symbol of everything it stood for," says Lowery.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, another SCLC cofounder, looked to the book of Isaiah for a description of her essence: "In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength." "What Martin was in his life, she adopted and became," said Shuttlesworth. But she was far from a faint imitation of MLK. Born poor in segregated Alabama, she was already an accomplished singer and activist when King met her in 1952. "If you look a white man in the eye, he can't harm you," she told NEWSWEEK's Vern Smith in 1998, sharing the lesson she'd learned from her father. "I grew up knowing fear, but I was never afraid." Congressman John Lewis encountered her for the first time as a 17-year-old student at Fisk University; she was performing in a Freedom Concert at a local church, bearing witness in words and song to the terrible, beautiful battle for civil rights. "I loved her," Lewis said simply. Many who did not know her nearly as well also sensed something special in the quiet woman who had found her voice. And in a time when women were not especially welcomed as leaders, she played a visible role, while navigating the sometimes fragile male egos around her.
Her causes (including the fight for the King holiday, for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change and, most oddly, for exoneration of James Earl Ray, her husband's convicted killer) were sometimes controversial. She did not always win. But she fought the good fight.