Four Presidents Join Mourners at Funeral of Coretta Scott King

By MARIA NEWMAN

New York Times

February 8, 2006

Four presidents, countless other dignitaries and thousands of ordinary people were on hand today to pay a last tribute to Coretta Scott King, who had transformed herself from young widow to gracious civil rights leader in her own right.

On the day Mrs. King was being laid to rest in Georgia, President Bush called her "one of the most admired Americans of our time."

"Her journey was long, and only briefly with a hand to hold," Mr. Bush said of Mrs. King, who was left a widow at age 40 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. "Having loved a leader, she became a leader."

With song and poetry and the cadence of great oratory delivered from the pulpit in the tradition of Dr. King himself, Mrs. King was praised for carrying on her husband's struggle rather than giving in to grief and fear.

The cavernous New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, was filled to capacity for the service for Mrs. King, who died on Jan. 30 at the age of 78.

Some of the recollections were about her place alongside Dr. King, and the danger that that often represented to her and their four children. Some were more personal reminisces, such as when the poet Maya Angelou recalled how the two women playfully called each other "girl," she said, "even as we reached well into our 70's."

Others were about the vaunted role the Kings had played in helping to change a nation from one in which racial segregation was set in stone a mere half century ago.

Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, recalled the days when Dr. King was threatened with a four-month sentence of hard labor for a "minor traffic violation," and how Mr. Kennedy's brother Robert, then the United States attorney general, offered Mrs. King his help.

"I remember my brother calling her and saying he would do whatever was necessary," Mr. Kennedy said, prompting the crowd to stand and applaud. "And Robert called the judge. Robert called the judge, who fortunately saw the light, and Martin was released."

He also talked about Mrs. King's efforts to make her husband's birthday a national holiday.

"Only three Americans in our history have been given that high honor, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and Coretta made it happen," he said.

The biggest applause in the service was reserved for former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton, who stood with her husband as each delivered remarks about Mrs. King, whom they called a friend.

Mr. Clinton said that after Dr. King was killed, most people would have forgiven Mrs. King for not wanting to carry on his struggle. But instead, he said , she asked herself, "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?"

He said that she chose to continue his struggle for nonviolent solutions to justice, and that her death should make others ask, "What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?"

At times, the remarks turned toward the political, and seemed many times directed at President Bush and the war in Iraq as well as at some of his domestic policies.

Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta said that Mrs. King had spoken out, not just against racism but also about "the senselessness of war and the solutions for poverty."

Former President Jimmy Carter talked about the nonviolent struggle for justice that the Kings tried to promote, a veiled reference to the war in Iraq. "They overcame one of the greatest challenges of life, which is to be able to wage a fierce struggle for freedom and justice and to do it peacefully," he said.

He also noted that Dr. King had been the subject of wiretapping by the F.B.I., a reference that recalls the Bush administration's controversial decision not to seek warrants for eavesdropping on some electronic communications related to the efforts against Al Qaeda.

"It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, and they became the targets of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance," Mr. Carter, a Democrat, said of the Kings.

The former president also said that if anyone believed that the civil rights struggle was over, "we only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, was even more pointed in remarks he had put in verse form.

"She extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war," he said. "She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar.

"We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there," he said. "But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here.

"Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor," he said.

On Monday, Mrs. King lay in repose at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual heart of the civil rights movement where her husband and her husband's father had preached.

Today she was eulogized at New Birth, another bookend of the civil rights movement. The church, at the center of a wealthy enclave of well-to-do African Americans, is led by Bishop Eddie Long, one of the African-American ministers who has developed a relationship with the Bush White House as Republicans try to reach out to black voters through black evangelical churches.

It is also the church where Mrs. King's daughter, Bernice, is a preacher.

Bernice King, who delivered one of the eulogies, is in photographs familiar to many, at age 5 lying in her mother's black-draped lap during her father's funeral.