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Coretta Scott King joins slain husband in holiday tribute

    ATLANTA — On a recent afternoon, Jeffrey and Liza Dunn brought their daughter and niece to the center dedicated to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., where the family took a moment to sit by the crypt of the civil rights icon and his wife, Coretta.
    There, at the reflecting pool, the Plainfield, N.J., couple told the girls about King’s dreams of racial harmony, economic equality and world peace. They also spoke of a dedicated widow, devoted mother and matriarch of the civil rights movement, who gracefully struggled against war, poverty and racism for years even after her husband was killed.
    ‘‘Their partnership is the foundation of everything we’ve benefited from,’’ Jeffrey Dunn, 49, said. ‘‘And even in her absence, she leaves a legacy, a commitment to his dream.’’
    This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, first observed more than two decades ago, will be the first without Coretta Scott King, who died nearly a year ago. The absence of her stately presence at the holiday activities held each year in King’s hometown of Atlanta will be a visible reminder that the standard bearer of King’s vision is now gone — and that the holiday has evolved to reflect the accomplishments and mission of both the dreamer and the dream keeper.
    ‘‘Her commitment and her accomplishments were equal to his,’’ Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb said. ‘‘To view her as an equal in helping to establish racial democracy in America would be fitting.’’
    Coretta Scott King, who lived twice as long as Martin Luther King Jr., fought to preserve his legacy — building a center of nonviolence bearing the civil rights icon’s name, and working for years to establish his birthday as a federal holiday. Atlanta’s five-day King holiday observance, which begins Jan. 11, will prominently feature tributes to Coretta Scott King, who will be one of the honorees for the annual Salute to Greatness dinner. The event is the primary fundraiser for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
    Coretta Scott King suffered a stroke in August 2005 and then battled ovarian cancer. She seemed to be recovering when she smiled and waved during a standing ovation at last year’s Salute to Greatness dinner on the weekend of King Day. Two weeks later, she died.
    Until the end, Coretta Scott King not only carried on her husband’s teachings, but she extrapolated the principles that he lived for into a contemporary context, speaking out on issues from the war in Iraq to gay marriage. After presiding over her husband’s birthday celebration for nearly four decades, her seat in the pulpit of King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church was empty last year for the first time.
    ‘‘She was able to inspire people and bring them together under the memory of Martin Luther King and what he stood for,’’ said Steve Klein, spokesman for The King Center. ‘‘She became sort of a living symbol. She was more than just a widow, but somebody who was involved.’’
    For 15 years, Coretta Scott King worked alongside her husband, and after his assassination in 1968, she kept fighting injustice. Within months of his death, the grieving widow established what would become The King Center — the first institution built in memory of a black leader — in the basement of the couple’s northwest Atlanta home.
    On Jan. 15, 1969, she celebrated what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 40th birthday. Each Jan. 15, for 35 more times, she publicly remembered him at events at his tomb and his church, and helped the rest of the country remember him.
    ‘‘He was much more of a marquis figure, but without her, there’s no telling what his legacy would’ve been,’’ Cobb said. ‘‘She essentially molded and shaped the way that his legacy was molded and interpreted.’’
    The service at Ebenezer Baptist Church — where King preached from 1960 to 1968 and where his widow remained a member until her death — and the wreath laying at his nearby tomb became iconic symbols of the day long before it gained federal recognition.
    ‘‘She was there every year,’’ Coretta Scott King’s friend and civil rights comrade, Evelyn Lowery, recalled. ‘‘She was determined to carry out whatever she could that he stood for, to make sure that his philosophies and his presence were still felt.’’
    Over the years, The King Center grew. And King’s widow pushed for the national holiday, finally getting it in January 1986, on King’s 57th birthday. Today, King’s birthday is celebrated in some form in more than 100 countries, according to The King Center.
    Liza Dunn said she believes people will now think of both Kings on the national holiday that bears the name of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

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