A spirited service filled with tears, laughter, politics

15,000 people, including 4 presidents, bid loving farewell to Coretta Scott King

February 08, 2006|By SHAILA DEWAN AND ELISABETH BUMILLER | SHAILA DEWAN AND ELISABETH BUMILLER,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LITHONIA, Ga. -- Coretta Scott King was laid to rest yesterday, after a funeral where white-gloved ushers welcomed 15,000 people, including four presidents, three governors, three planeloads of Congress members, celebrities, gospel stars and figures of the civil rights movement.

The six-hour service, held in the vast two-tiered sanctuary of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, was marked by elegiac moments, standing ovations, and, with the Clintons and Bushes sharing a podium, some overt political gibes about the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

One of the first to speak was President Bush, who said Mrs. King had chosen to fight on for racial equality even after the assassination of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Americans knew her husband only as a young man," he said. "We knew Mrs. King in all the seasons of her life. And there was beauty and dignity in every season."

He added, "By going forward with a strong and forgiving heart, Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband's legacy, she built her own. Having loved a leader, she became a leader."

But others did not confine their remarks to Mrs. King; neither did they temper them because the president was seated just a few feet behind. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who spoke at times in rhyme, said, "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there."

Former President Jimmy Carter, in an apparent allusion to Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, pointedly mentioned the difficulties that Mrs. King and her husband endured as they became the target of secret government wiretapping.

Of the four presidents, Bill Clinton was the crowd's political and cultural star. A huge cheer went up as he reached the open area near Mrs. King's casket, and the crowd gave him a thunderous standing ovation when he approached the microphone to speak with his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

"I'm honored to be here with my president and my former presidents," he said. Then he paused briefly and looked at Hillary Clinton, the silence of his unspoken words seeming to suggest that he wanted to say future president, too. When the crowd began cheering, he laughed and said, "No, no, no."

He delivered the longest speech of the four presidents, apparently without notes. "I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there," he said, pointing to Mrs. King's casket. "Not a symbol, a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments."

The funeral was held after three days of services and remembrances for Mrs. King. More than 150,000 lined up to see her lying in honor in the rotunda of the state Capitol on Saturday and at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday.

The official pomp brought faint smiles to the lips of friends who first knew Mrs. King, 78, as a champion of radical causes and later as the courageous widow of a man whom authorities treated as a troublemaker and a criminal. Some said it was a chance to make up for the fact that Dr. King had not been similarly honored at his death in 1968. Still others said Mrs. King's death on Jan. 30 signaled the end of an era.

"I've been stripped," whispered actress Cicely Tyson, who once played Mrs. King in a miniseries. She ticked off the names of Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks and others who have recently died. "These were the women who were there when I first started, and who kind of took me in. And they're leaving me."

In the hours before the funeral, throngs gathered at a nearby shopping mall, and when shuttles stopped ferrying people to the church, many walked.

Yuritzy Villasenor, an elementary school teacher who came from California for the funeral, was so overcome after viewing the body that she could barely speak. "She gave it all up for you and me to be standing here together," she said.

Inside the circular sanctuary, the inner circle near the podium became quite literally that, as dignitaries including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; the Rev. Al Sharpton; Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party; Myrlie Evers, the wife of the slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers; and Marion Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, mingled and reminisced before the service began.

Sharpton said, "She became the most acceptable part of the movement you could think of, but she never left the movement. She used to reprimand me and say, `Al, you can't fight if you have anger.'"

In DeKalb County, school was canceled and across the country flags flew at half-staff. After the funeral, attendees begged strangers for copies of the 20-page program, combing the sanctuary for discards until church employees forced them to leave.

During the service, three of Mrs. King's four children, Martin Luther King III, 48, Dexter King, 45, and Yolanda King, 50, sat together in the first row. The Rev. Bernice King, 42, an elder at New Birth, sat on stage, waiting to deliver the eulogy.

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