Four U.S. presidents join 10,000 at Coretta Scott King's funeral

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The service at times turned political with anti-war comments.

LITHONIA, Ga. -- When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson didn't attend his funeral, choosing instead to meet with his Cabinet about the Vietnam War.

But at services for Coretta Scott King, four U.S. presidents took turns Tuesday saluting "the first lady of the civil rights movement" for her efforts over 40 years to realize her husband's dream of racial equality.

They joined 10,000 other mourners -- including numerous members of Congress and many gray-haired veterans of the struggle for civil rights -- to say goodbye to King's widow, who died Jan. 30 at age 78 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke.

More than three dozen speakers addressed the immense crowd that filled the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church -- a modern, arena-style megachurch in a suburban Atlanta county that was once a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan but today has one of the most affluent black populations in the country.

President Bush ordered flags flown at half-staff across the country and saluted Coretta Scott King as "a woman who worked to make our nation whole."

"Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband's legacy, she built her own," Bush told the crowd. "Having loved a leader, she became a leader, and when she spoke, Americans listened closely."

Former President Clinton urged mourners to follow in her footsteps, honor her husband's sacrifice and help the couple's children fulfill their parents' legacy. Former President Bush said the "world is a kinder and gentler place because of Coretta Scott King." President Carter praised the Kings for their ability to "wage a fierce struggle for freedom and justice and to do it peacefully."

The funeral at times turned political, with some speakers decrying the war in Iraq, the Bush administration's eavesdropping program, and the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in mostly black New Orleans.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., drew a roaring standing ovation when he said: "For war, billions more, but no more for the poor" -- a takeoff on a line from a Stevie Wonder song. The comment drew head shakes from Bush and his father as they sat behind the pulpit.

The large, lavish service stood in sharp contrast to the 1968 funeral for King's husband. President Johnson did not attend those services, which were held in the much smaller and older Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, where King had preached.

Johnson did not attend the funeral because he was meeting with advisers and Cabinet officers at Camp David to discuss Vietnam War peace talks. There were also security concerns because of rioting that followed King's death, according to Betty Sue Flowers, director of Johnson's presidential library in Austin, Texas.

Instead, Johnson declared a national day of mourning and sent Vice President Hubert Humphrey to the funeral.

Coretta Scott King's body was to be placed in a crypt near her husband's tomb at the King Center, which she built to promote his memory. The crypt is inscribed with a passage from First Corinthians: "And now abide Faith, Hope, Love, These Three; but the greatest of these is Love."

Over the past several days, more than 160,000 mourners waited in long lines to pay their respects and file past King's open casket during viewings at churches and the Georgia Capitol, where King became the first woman and the first black person to lie in honor.

"She made many great sacrifices," said Sean Washington, 38, who drove from Tampa, Fla., with his wife and children from a disability center to attend the funeral. "To be in her presence once more is something that I would definitely cherish, no matter what."

Stevie Wonder and Michael Bolton sang, giving soaring, gospel-infused performances. At least 14 U.S. senators attended, along with members of the House.

Among the civil rights veterans at the funeral were Dorothy Height, longtime chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women; Rep. John Lewis, former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who led the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Ala.; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

The youngest of the Kings' four children, Bernice, delivered remarks that were part fiery sermon and part eulogy. She was 5 when her father was assassinated, and was famously photographed lying in her mother's lap during her father's funeral.

Bernice King, a minister at the megachurch, yelled at times as she preached against violence and materialism, saying that her mother's purpose in life was to spread her father's message of peace and unconditional love.

"Thank you, mother, for your incredible example of Christ-like love and obedience," she said.

Poet Maya Angelou called Coretta Scott King "a study in serenity" and challenged the audience to carry on the King message of nonviolence.

"We owe something from this minute on, so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history," said Angelou, a former U

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: