LITHONIA, Ga. — Ten thousand mourners — including four U.S. presidents, numerous members of Congress and many gray-haired veterans of the civil rights movement — said goodbye to Coretta Scott King on Tuesday, with President Bush saluting her as “a woman who worked to make our nation whole.”
The immense crowd 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.
More than three dozen speakers at the funeral took turns remembering the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who worked to realize her husband’s dream of equality for nearly 40 years after his assassination. She died Jan. 30 at age 78 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke.
The president ordered flags flown at half-staff across the country.
“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.”
President Clinton urged mourners to follow in her footsteps, honor her husband’s sacrifice and help the couple’s children fulfill their parents’ legacy. President George H.W. 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.”
Bush agenda criticized
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 lavish service stood in sharp contrast to the 1968 funeral for King’s husband. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not attend those services, which were held in the much smaller and older Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, where King had preached.Slideshow: Coretta Scott King remembered
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.
Civil rights veterans in attendance
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.S. poet laureate who sang some of her comments in a traditional style of the Southern black church.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — who spoke immediately after the president — injected politics into her remarks, describing how Coretta Scott King spoke out against “the senselessness of war” with a voice that was heard “from the tintop roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad.”
Wiretapping in the Kings’ time
Carter brought up the government response to Katrina, saying, “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi” to know that inequality exists. He also noted that the Kings once were “victims of secret government wiretapping” — echoing Bush’s domestic spying program.
Outside the church, the lines to get into the funeral and to attend the final viewing of King’s body started forming before 3 a.m.
“It’s good to finally see her at peace,” said Robert Jackson, a 34-year-old financial consultant from Atlanta whose 10-year-old daughter, Ebony, persuaded him to take her to the church.
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