Tale of Two Women

updated 06/22/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It seemed, in 1968, as if the nation were cursed. As a ruinously unpopular war dragged on in Southeast Asia, America appeared consumed by anger and anguish, caught up in a Civil war all its own. Along the fault lines of a society riven by conflict over Vietnam, race, poverty, sex, drugs, even rock and roll, the young took to the streets in defiance of their elders, and no wisdom or authority seemed safe from challenge. Then came two murders so shocking that, for a moment, the country stood silent. On April 4, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 39, the lyrically eloquent civil rights leader, was shot down on a Memphis motel balcony by a petty thief named James Earl Ray. Barely two months later, on June 5, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, 42, running for President, was assassinated by Palestinian nationalist Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. America's despair was made palpable.

For the widows of the slain men, the horror was agonizingly personal. With scarcely time to mourn, they took the reins of their distraught families and, in their distinctive ways, fought to keep alive their husbands' ideals. Coretta Scott King assumed an exhausting schedule of speeches and public appearances; Ethel Kennedy often chose to work behind the scenes, sponsoring a wide network of charities while trying to manage a family touched by loss and, occasionally, scandal. Though neither has escaped controversy, each has, many believe, triumphed in her less public role—as a mother. "I think the world owes both these Women an incredible debt of gratitude," says Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a friend of both families, "that these children grew up with no bitterness and no hatred—all of them believers in what their parents stood for." What follows is the story of two vigilant and remarkable women.

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