One of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speeches was his April 4, 1967, condemnation of the Vietnam War. He said America could never end poverty at home as long as ''adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube."
King confessed in his speech that it took him two years to ''break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart." A prior, 1965 declaration that ''the war in Vietnam should be stopped" resulted in a massive backlash from the White House and other black civil rights leaders who were afraid that an angry President Lyndon B. Johnson would dump them.
In the shadows of history, Coretta Scott King, who died yesterday at age 78, stoked her husband's fire until the blaze could not be contained. She was active in the global peace movement before her husband. In 1962, she traveled with an American delegation to Geneva, Switzerland, to monitor nuclear test-ban talks. In her 1969 autobiography, she said the delegation was received by the US representative to the talks as if they were ''hysterical females."
Coretta Scott King joined the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. After her husband received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, she said she told him many times, ''I think there is a role you must play in achieving world peace, and I will be so glad when the time comes when you can assume that role."
A symbol of how her husband was not quite ready to assume that role came late in 1965. King, burned by the backlash of his first attempts to criticize the war, backed out of an address to a peace rally in Washington. His wife kept her commitment to speak, saying, according to Taylor Branch's new book ''At Canaan's Edge," that America had to stay true to the ideals of democracy ''in spite of the bombings in Alabama as well as in Vietnam."
King built the case for his 1967 speech, raising the temperature a few additional degrees with each new speech. By the beginning of that year, he said, ''The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam." But even though the April speech came with deliberate speed, he was again criticized by civil rights giants Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Ralph Bunch, and Jackie Robinson and panned by The New York Times, Newsweek, and Life.
Coretta Scott King kept stoking the fire. She said she told her friends, ''Those persons who do not agree with my husband now do not understand the meaning of his whole life. You cannot believe in peace at home and not believe in international peace. He could not be a true follower of the nonviolent philosophy and condone war. You think of him as a politician, but he feels that as a minister he has a prophetic role and must speak out against the evils of society. He sees war as an evil and therefore he must condemn war.
''I also pointed out that Pope Paul had recently visited this country and spoken against war and my husband was really saying the same things. When the pope spoke, everyone applauded; but when a black man named Martin Luther King speaks, they criticize him. After all, Martin Luther King is a clergyman too, and taking the world as a whole."
A week after his April speech, King spoke at a massive peace rally in New York City while his wife addressed an antiwar throng in San Francisco. As she was ahead of him on world peace, he was still ahead of the nation on Vietnam. After he was killed a year later, she remained ahead of her time in memorable ways.
In the late 1990s, well before the gay marriage debate caught fire, Coretta Scott King said on the eve of the 30th anniversary of her husband's assassination, ''I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' "
In the months leading up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Coretta Scott King was one of the voices who opposed it, warning, ''A war with Iraq will increase anti-American sentiment, create more terrorists, and drain as much as 200 billion taxpayer dollars, which should be invested in human development here in America."
Long after her husband's death, she kept speaking from the burnings of her own heart.
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© 2006 Boston Globe