February 13, 2006 12:00 PM

In the days after Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis on April 4, 1968, no one saw Coretta Scott King cry—not even her four small children. “I would wake up in the morning, have my cry, then go in to them,” she told PEOPLE in 1998. “The children saw me going forward.” So did the rest of the world when Coretta, her husband’s body not yet in the ground, left the safety of her one-story brick home in Atlanta to take her husband’s place leading a march of striking workers in Memphis. That commitment to Martin’s mission and memory quickly sealed Coretta’s standing as the First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement. But 30 years later, Coretta confessed that her stoicism came at a cost. “I don’t think in the end it’s a good idea,” she said, “because eventually the grief has to come out.”

Perhaps if King had permitted herself a few public tears, she would be remembered for more than the steely strength and regal composure that became her calling card. Following her death at age 78 at a hospital in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, on Jan. 31, where, according to her nephew Isaac Newton Farris Jr., she was seeking alternative treatment for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, many of the commemorative sentiments made her sound aloof and sometimes more iconic than human. “Mrs. King was a remarkable and courageous woman,” President Bush said. “She carried on the legacy of her husband.”

But there were other essentials, too, like her warmth and humor. “I knew her as a colored girl who you could hang on the phone with for hours,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who first met the Kings in the early 1950s, remembers her charm and playfulness. “Martin loved to tease Coretta,” he says, “and she’d jive right back.”

Most importantly, King had a deep-seated commitment to the civil rights struggle dating back to a childhood in segregated rural Alabama, where her father, a successful trucker, received death threats from envious white neighbors. “She had more difficult racial experiences growing up than Martin did,” says Andrew Young, 73, the former mayor of Atlanta who was with Martin Luther King the day he died. “She was a natural activist.” Coretta was concerned with social justice from her first days at overwhelmingly white Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “I didn’t just marry [Martin], I married his cause,” Coretta would say. “And it was my cause before I ever met him.”

After Martin’s death, of course, Coretta became seared in the public mind as keeper of her husband’s flame. Best known for spearheading the 15-year campaign that in 1983 resulted in a national holiday honoring her husband’s memory and starting the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta in 1968, Coretta crisscrossed the globe, making speeches, conferring with political leaders and leading marches on behalf of such causes as ending South African apartheid and securing gay rights in the U.S.

In the mid-1990s, she and her children—Yolanda, now 50; Martin, 48; Dexter, 45; and Bernice, 42—came under attack for licensing the use of Martin’s words and image. Critics singled out her belief that Martin’s accused killer, James Earl Ray, was convicted to keep hidden a government conspiracy that was actually responsible for the death. Berated for controlling and diluting her husband’s inspirational message, Coretta was uncontrite. “Well, we should control it,” she snapped. “We are doing this not to contain it, but to keep it pure.”

That sort of headstrong attitude helped Coretta escape her rural roots in Perry County, Ala., where she worked on the family farm and picked cotton during the Depression. After graduating from Antioch, she won a scholarship to study voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. There, on a day in 1952, Martin, a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston University, came courting for the first time, on the recommendation of a friend. As he left, he told Coretta that she had all the qualities he wanted in a wife. “He wanted someone who was a thinker in addition to someone who would keep his house in order and be a mother to his children,” says her sister Edythe Scott Bagley, 81. “She had a strong social conscience, and Martin recognized it in her.” Coretta was attracted to that in him—and something more. “Our father was a strong man, a he-man, and so was Martin,” says Bagley.

Eighteen months later, after both had finished their degrees, they married and moved to Montgomery, where Martin won his first church posting—and where they were quickly thrust into the struggle that would become their life’s calling. Owing to a lack of accommodations for African-Americans in the segregated South, the couple spent their first night together in a funeral parlor. Coretta was home alone with her 2-month-old daughter Yolanda on Jan. 30, 1956, when a bomb was hurled at the family’s house in Montgomery. With Martin away, Coretta soothed the angry blacks who descended on their house, itching to strike back. In 1986 she told The Washington Post, “I woke up one morning after the bombing and said, ‘Now I know why we’re here.'”

Coretta had to struggle to have her voice heard in the movement. Martin made it clear he expected her to tend the home. When Roger Wilkins, the highest-ranking black in the Johnson Administration’s Justice Department, paid a 1966 visit to the Kings in a Chicago slum, Coretta was active in the conversation. She also served the coffee. “Who else would do it?” says Wilkins, now a history professor at George Mason University. “This was still the ’60s, and she was, at home, a very traditional wife.” Thanks to J. Edgar Hoover, who illegally tapped Martin’s phone, then sent tapes of his talks with other women to the King home, Coretta knew about her husband’s philandering. Yet, says Wilkins, “she stood by her man.”

Only after her husband was struck down did she gain full standing in the movement. About 10 years ago, for health reasons, she gave up her beloved soul food for a vegetarian diet. Debilitated by a stroke and heart attack last August, she continued to receive friends and old colleagues at her home (“She never wanted you to see her without her makeup,” says Andrew Young) despite a tough rehab regimen. On Jan. 14 she made a surprise appearance at a gala in Atlanta, arriving in a wheelchair, then rising to her feet to receive an ovation. Appropriately enough, her last public appearance was to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day—the day her love, determination and vision had given birth to.

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