January 31, 2006 07:55 AM

Coretta Scott King, widow of American Civil Rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King, died Monday night. She was 78.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, a longtime friend of the King family, said on Tuesday morning’s Today show via phone from Atlanta: “I was not expecting it, but she has been rather ill for the past few months. My first reaction was, she was ready to cross on over.”

Young said Mrs. King did not stir when her daughter went in her bedroom to awaken her, and that Mrs. King had slipped away in her sleep. “Yet her spirit will remain with us,” he added.

After suffering a stroke and heart attack last August, Mrs. King made a surprise appearance at a Jan. 14 event to honor her late husband. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the King family matriarch joined two of her four children, Dexter and Yolanda King, who served as emcees for the annual Salute to Greatness dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta.

Born and raised in Marion, Ala., Coretta Scott received a B.A. in music and education from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and then went on to study concert singing at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a degree in voice and violin. While in Boston she met Martin Luther King, Jr. who was then studying for his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University, according to her official biography at Atlanta’s King Center. (The center was established by Mrs. King in 1968, the year her husband was assassinated. It is dedicated to the advancement of the legacy of her husband’s nonviolent movement for justice, equality and peace.)

Coretta and Martin were married on June 18, 1953, and in September 1954 took up residence in Montgomery, Ala., with Coretta Scott King assuming the many functions of pastor’s wife at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. During Dr. King’s career, Mrs. King devoted most of her time to raising their four children: Yolanda Denise (born in 1955), Martin Luther, III (1957), Dexter Scott (1961), and Bernice Albertine (1963).

In 1957, she and Dr. King traveled to Ghana to mark that country’s independence. A year later, they spent a belated honeymoon in Mexico, where they observed firsthand the immense gulf between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. One year after that, Dr. and Mrs. King spent nearly a month in India on a pilgrimage to see disciples and sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. And in 1964, she accompanied him to Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even prior to her husband’s public stand against the Vietnam War in 1967, Mrs. King functioned as liaison to peace and justice organizations, and as mediator to public officials on behalf of the unheard, her biography states.

For nearly four decades Mrs. King remained a dynamic figure in the struggle for civil rights, and Young considered her more of an activist than even her husband was in his prime. “Although people didn’t realize it, the action part was always difficult for him,” Young told PEOPLE in 1998. “He wanted to preach and reason things out. Coretta wanted to march.”

Aside from facing the challenges of being a single mother with four children, Mrs. King made hundreds of speeches, led marches, raised funds and met with human rights and political leaders around the world. She orchestrated a 15-year effort that culminated in 1983, when President Reagan signed a bill creating a national holiday in her husband’s memory. She joined the battle to end apartheid, lobbying hard for U.S. sanctions against South Africa. And, not confining herself to racial issues, she campaigned actively to defend gay rights.

Through it all, she kept alive the memory of her husband – and, in a personal touch, the red carnations her husband sent her in March 1968, kept safely in her home on Sunset Avenue in Atlanta. (It was the same one-story brick house she shared with Dr. King and their children.) “What was so strange was that he always sent me fresh flowers, and these were artificial,” Mrs. King told PEOPLE six years ago. “When I asked why, Martin said he wanted me to have something I could keep, almost as if he knew they would have to last a very long time.”

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