After repeated failures in Congress to pass a bill, the King family in 1971 backed a mule train that deposited at the Capitol millions of signatures in favor of the holiday. Over the next several years, other endorsements came in the form of a song titled "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder and successful state bills establishing a King holiday. But federal legislation was blocked by formidable opponents, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who argued that the holiday's price tag in federal overtime would be too steep.
Finally, in 1983, black leaders approached Rep. Jack Kemp, a Republican from New York, to lead the charge. They arranged for Coretta King to personally plead the case for the holiday. Kemp would later compare his meeting with King to "sitting down with Mother Teresa." He agreed to champion the bill.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Coretta Scott King obituary -- An obituary of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King on Feb. 1 in Section A stated that Lorena Blanco, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, said King had died Jan. 31. She died Jan. 30.
The legislation cleared Congress on Nov. 19, 1983, and was signed by President Reagan two weeks later. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became the 10th national holiday and only the second named for an American. (The first was George Washington; Abraham Lincoln's birthday is observed only in some states.) Coretta King led the commission that planned the first annual celebration festivities in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 1986.
"The holiday wouldn't have happened without her," Lewis, the Georgia congressman, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1993.
The same was true of the King Center, which annually attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. She led the Atlanta center from its inception in 1969 until 1994, when she turned over the management to Dexter. It is now headed by his brother, Martin Luther III.
They survive her along with daughters Yolanda and Bernice and a sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, of Cheyney, Pa.
The King Center has been attacked over the years for a lack of activism, and it has struggled financially. In the 1990s it began to run large deficits, and by 2005 it needed $11.6 million in repairs. The future of the center became the subject of an ugly family squabble, with Dexter and Yolanda pushing to sell the institution to the National Park Service despite the objections of Martin III and Bernice.
Several years earlier the King family had tried to block a National Park Service proposal to open its own exhibit on the Rev. King, arguing that it would detract from the family-run center across the street. The Kings and the Park Service eventually resolved their differences, but the dispute tarnished the Kings' image.
Other controversies only sharpened the criticism that King and her family were putting personal profit before public interest.
The King estate sold the rights to the Rev. King's "I Have a Dream" speech for use in cellphone commercials while it limited access to his papers by serious scholars and journalists. It forced USA Today, for example, to pay $1,700 plus legal fees after the newspaper published the text of the historic speech. It also sued CBS for selling a video documentary that made extensive use of the network's own film of the Rev. King and the March on Washington.
Coretta King, a self-professed workaholic who often called staff members late at night, never took a salary from the center but supported herself through speaking fees and royalties from her autobiography and her late husband's writings.
She established herself as an advocate of women's rights and full employment in the 1970s, campaigned against apartheid in the 1980s, and was a keynote speaker at the U.N. International Day of Solidarity with the Women of South Africa and Namibia in 1984. The following year she was arrested with daughter Bernice at a rally outside the South African Embassy in Washington. In 1994, she shared the dais with Nelson Mandela after he won the first nonracial government election in South Africa.
She also was a supporter of same-sex marriage, which she called a civil rights issue. "Her own daughter disagreed with her on that," Branch, the civil rights historian, noted in an interview Tuesday. Bernice King, a minister in Atlanta, helped lead a march to promote an anti-gay marriage agenda in 2004.
Coretta King "felt nonviolence should be applied not just in the race movement but in international affairs, the fight against poverty
She made news again in 1997, when she gave emotional testimony in a hearing to support reopening the case of James Earl Ray, her husband's convicted killer, who was dying of liver disease. She believed that her husband had been the victim of a conspiracy that likely involved agents of the government and that Ray, who had confessed to the crime and later recanted, was innocent. He died in 1998 before a new trial could be ordered; King called his death a tragedy.
In 2004 she finally moved from the four-bedroom family home in Atlanta that she had shared with her husband after several break-ins convinced her it was unsafe. She relocated to a condominium in the exclusive Buckhead area of Atlanta.
She became a vegetarian after she began to experience serious health problems, which included atrial fibrillation, a heart disorder that causes blood clots. Last year she spent several weeks in an Atlanta hospital after a heart attack and a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
She never remarried, nor have any of her children married. Dexter suggested in his memoir, "Growing Up King," that he and his siblings have remained single in part because of the pressure of their father's towering achievements and the trauma of his violent death.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about Martin," Coretta Scott King once said. "He was my source of inspiration. Martin and I were soul mates. When he died, a part of me died."
Times staff writer Richard Marosi contributed to this report.