Political Overtones at King Funeral

By Edwin Chen

Los Angeles Times

February 7, 2006

In a ceremony that became overtly political at times, President Bush and three of his predecessors today led the nation in paying a final tribute to Coretta Scott King, who became a civil rights icon in her own right after the 1968 assassination of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Some 10,000 mourners joined the dignitaries for one last chance to bid Mrs. King farewell at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., a suburban Atlanta mega-church where King's daughter, Bernice, is a minister.

Some of the mourners braved near-freezing temperatures overnight and began waiting in line outside as early as 3 a.m.

King died Jan. 31 at age 78 after a long struggle with cancer and the effects of a stroke.

In brief remarks, President Bush hailed King as "God's servant who worked to make our nation whole," and said her life was marked by "grace and beauty in every season."

"Her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation."

In time, Bush said, King became "one of the most admired American women of our time." Hers, he added, was "a life well lived."

"She is rightly mourned and she is deeply missed," the president concluded.

"Our sister Coretta is on the other shore, at peace, at rest, at home."

Earlier, Bishop Eddie Long, leader of the church, declared: "The dream is still alive. This is a celebration."

In addition to former Presidents Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, dozen of senators and congressmen and women, governors and an array of prominent African Americans, including Maya Angelou and Stevie Wonder, attended the midday service.

Among the planned speakers were Carter, Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Zanele Mbeki, the first lady of South Africa. First Lady Laura Bush attended the service, but was not scheduled to speak.

The gathering in the church's massive sanctuary offered up a rare but fascinating public tableau filled with powerful public figures who were — or remain — political rivals but were brought together by a tragedy.

There on center stage, before 10,000 people and a national television audience was Bill Clinton, standing between his wife and Laura Bush, who last month chided her predecessor Clinton for making a "ridiculous" statement in calling the House of Representatives a "plantation." A few seats down was former President Bush, whom Clinton had defeated in 1992.

Perhaps not surprisingly, at several points during the hours-long ceremony a political undercurrent became all but palpable, evoking not so much memories of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s as the ongoing controversies over the Iraq war and the Bush administration's slow response to Hurricane Katrina, whose victims in New Orleans were disproportionately black.

One such moment came when Carter indirectly reminded his audience of Bush's domestic spying program as he said of the Kings: "It was difficult for them then, personally, with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps."

The former president went on to say that Katrina had revealed to the world the racial inequities that persist in the United States.

Later, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Rev. King, was even more outspoken.

"Our marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise but in the morning will words become deeds that meet need?" he asked, drawing an ovation from the predominantly black audience.

"We know there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we knew, there are weapons of misdirection right down here," Lowery continued. "For war, billions more, but no more for the poor."

At that, some saw both the president and his father shake their heads.

The elder Bush sought to defuse the tension by noting that Lowery also had challenged him as president.

"I kept score in the Oval Office desk — Lowery 21, Bush 3," the 41st president quipped. "It wasn't a fair fight."

In contrast, the audience accorded the Clintons an unrestrained welcome, jumping to its feet and cheering heartily as the couple walked together to the podium, where they took turns speaking.

When the 42nd president acknowledged the other former presidents, someone in the audience yelled out: "Future president!" in a clear reference to Sen. Clinton, who is widely considered a likely candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The Clintons had flown to Atlanta aboard Air Force One.

Shortly before the plane took off this morning at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, former President Clinton shared with reporters some of his memories of Coretta King.

"One of the most vivid things to me, although almost nobody would have mentioned it, is that less than a week after he was shot, she and her children went to Memphis and led that march that he was down there to lead. And, you know, she would have been forgiven, I think by everyone concerned, if she had chosen to be a mother and focus on her own life," Clinton said.

"Instead, it was her cause too, and she continued it and broadened it, not just on civil rights but also the campaign against poverty, the campaign for human rights, the campaign for peace. And she continued to do it throughout her whole life."

At the service, Bernice King, who was 5 when her father was murdered, was to deliver the eulogy.

Earlier this week, some 150,000 people filed past King's casket, first at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where her husband had preached in the tumultuous 1960s, and then at the Georgia Capitol, where she became the first woman and the first African American, to lie in honor there.

At the Ebenezer Church on Monday, singer Gladys Knight performed and Oprah Winfrey delivered an eulogy. That night, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton galvanized a crowd with fiery speeches.

After today's funeral, King was to be placed in a crypt near her husband's tomb at the King Center in Atlanta.