After 38 years, Coretta Scott King Finally Joins her Husband
By: George E. Curry
Originally posted 2/8/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – With four U.S. presidents in attendance – two Democrats and two Republicans – the 6-hour funeral of Coretta Scott King on Tuesday started out as though it might be a star-studded exercise in political correctness, with speakers gingerly avoiding issues that have sharply divided them in the past.
President George W. Bush, an ardent opponent of affirmative action and other social programs favored by both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta, was effusive in his praise of Mrs. King.
“I’ve come today to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole,” he said. “… This kind and gentle woman became one of the most admired Americans of our time. She is rightly mourned, and she is deeply missed.”
Even Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who frequently spars with President Bush on social issues, focused on his family’s long-time personal relationship with the King family.
Noting that Dr. King was given a four-month jail sentence during the early 1960s for a minor traffic violation, Kennedy said: “I remember my brother calling her and saying he would do whatever was necessary,” he recalled. “And [Attorney General] Robert called the judge, who fortunately saw the light, and Martin was released.”
Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Dr. King, made it clear that he would not bite his tongue simply because President Bush was in attendance.
“She extended Martin’s message against poverty, racism and war,” he said, referring to Coretta Scott King. “She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar.”
With many already applauding wildly, Lowery turned up the heat.
“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” Lowery said, receiving a standing ovation. “Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more, but no more for the poor.”
Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, credited the Kings with legitimizing him as a national candidate, thus making it possible for a White Southerner to be elected president in 1976.
In an indirect dig at President Bush’s fervent support or warrantless wiretapping, Carter reminded the mourners of what the Kings endured: “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.”
As evidence that the struggle for equal rights is not over, Carter said, “We only have to recall the color of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.” After being interrupted by sustained applause, Carter continued, “Those who were most devastated by Katrina, to know there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans.”
The funeral was one of the rare times that four present and past presidents –Bush, Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton – have made a joint appearance.
The elder Bush, noted for his clumsiness, drew laughter when he said, “This may be your lucky day. I lost a page.”
If this had been a presidential sweepstakes, Bill Clinton would have been declared the clear winner. He received a prolonged standing ovation before he uttered a word. And when he did speak, it was with a passion he routinely uses to connect with predominantly Black audiences.
“I don’t want to forget that there’s a woman in there,” he said, pointing to a casket adorned with flowers. “Not a symbol. But a real woman who lived and breathed, and got angry and got hurt, and had dreams and disappointments. I don’t want us to forget that.”
Clinton continued, “We’re here to honor a person. Fifty-four years ago, her about-to-be husband said that he was looking for a woman with character, intelligence, personality, and beauty, and she sure fit the bill. And I have to say, when she was over 75, I thought she still fit the bill pretty good.”
The audience laughed in agreement.
The former president observed that instead of remaining in mourning, immediately following her husband’s assassination, Coretta Scott King was on a plane from Atlanta to Memphis to continue his work.
“What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?” Clinton asked. “Do you want to treat our friend Coretta like a model? Then model her behavior.”
He issued a pointed challenge to the city of Atlanta, where the Kings spent most of their lives.
“Atlanta, what is your responsibility for the future of the King Center?” Clinton asked, referring to a complex that had been beset in recent years by debt and controversy. “What are you going to do?”
Bernice King, who was 5 years old when her father died, eulogized her mother, who died Jan. 30 of respiratory problems associated with advanced ovarian cancer. She was 78 years old. The youngest child was with her mother when she died in Mexico.
“I’m just here to celebrate,” said the younger King, an associate pastor at the church. “I don’t have to say a word.” But she said many words in a wide-ranging eulogy that lasted about 38 minutes. Alluding to a controversy over the funeral being held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Bernice King said, ''I said, 'God, why here?' He said, 'It's time for the world to be born again.'''
She urged mourners to live in the present, not the past.
''God is not looking for a Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott King,'' she said. ''The old has passed away; there is a new order that is emerging.''
There was some unspoken tension between some who had worked with Dr. King and organizers of the funeral, which was held at the 10,000-seat mega-church in suburban Lithonia, 15 miles east of Atlanta. Jesse Jackson, a former King aide who was with him when the civil rights leader was killed in Memphis, was not allowed to be part of the funeral program. Jackson and other top aides had participated in a service the night before at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the historic Sweet Auburn section of downtown Atlanta.
Many of those speakers were already upset that the funeral service was being held at a suburban Black mega-church instead of Ebenezer, Dr. King’s old church. And few tried to hide their displeasure over Bush being allowed to take part in Coretta Scott King’s funeral after opposing most of what she fought for while she was alive.
“We can’t let them take her from us and reduce her to their trophy and not our freedom fighter,” Jackson said at the Monday night services.
Another top SCLC official, Rev. C. T. Vivian, said: “As we think of Coretta, if she were here right now, she would say the president of the United States is the direct opposite to Martin Luther King. It is in fact our public policy that makes people poor. Nonviolence is the root of the matter. If we forget that, we might as well forget the movement.”
Former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, another former King aide, said the contrasting services at Ebenezer and New Birth showed that Mrs. King had a foot in each world
“They are both real,” he explained to the Atlanta Constitution. “[Monday] was a movement service. It was like a mass movement. It unfortunately was too little about Coretta, but it was about carrying on the movement. Everything we have said about Coretta has been the truth, but she still made sure Nixon helped build the King Center, and she still got Reagan to sign the King holiday [bill]. She was always so humble and graceful, and her protest was so pure. That’s why she was so effective.”
After the funeral, Coretta Scott King’s body was driven to the King Center, arriving at 7:14 p.m. There, the family released seven doves, the symbol of peace. The coffin was placed in a temporary crypt, where it will remain until a permanent crypt is build next to her husband.
Between the tombs is an eternal flame. Inscribed on Mrs. King's crypt, below her name and years of birth and death, is a passage from First Corinthians 13:13, which reads: “And now abide Faith, Hope, Love, These Three; but the greatest of these is Love.”