Thousands Pay Respects to Coretta Scott King
Tuesday, February 7, 2006; 4:39 PM
Coretta Scott King, the civil rights icon who died last week at age 78, was eulogized today by a stream of dignitaries including four U.S. presidents, who hailed her courage and quiet dignity as she carried on the legacy of her slain husband, Martin Luther King Jr.
Saying he had come to offer the sympathy of the nation, President Bush told mourners at her funeral service near Atlanta that the woman known as the "first lady of the civil rights movement" had become "one of the most admired Americans of our time."
He was followed to the lectern at the packed New Birth Missionary Baptist Church by, among others, three former presidents: his father, George H.W. Bush; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
It was Clinton, appearing with his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who received the loudest ovation, before challenging Americans to carry on the legacy of Coretta Scott King and her late husband. Sen. Clinton also spoke, calling on people to "take up her burden" and continue "the work of peace."
The eulogies for King, who died Jan. 30 after battling ovarian cancer and a stroke, were not without political references, as speakers pointed to the unfinished business of advancing civil rights and alleviating poverty.
With President Bush sitting behind him as he spoke, Rev. Joseph Lowery, a longtime civil rights activist, lamented in verse that millions of Americans lack health insurance and that billions of dollars are being spent on war, "but no more for the poor."
Carter delivered some of the most pointed comments, noting that Martin Luther King Jr. had been "the target of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance" in his day. The remark raised the issue of a controversial eavesdropping program that President Bush authorized to combat terrorism but that some critics have charged violates U.S. law.
Carter also said the funeral serves to "remind us that the struggle for equal rights is not over." He added, drawing a standing ovation, "We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi -- those who were most devastated by Katrina -- to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans." He referred to widespread complaints that a bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina last year had a disproportionately heavy impact on blacks and exposed the harsh realities of black poverty.
In a eulogy laden with religious allusions, President Bush called Coretta Scott King a courageous and dignified woman who persevered in the struggle for civil rights alongside her late husband in the face of threats and intimidation.
"Her journey was long and only briefly with a hand to hold, but now she leans on everlasting arms," Bush said, standing before the flower-bedecked casket of the woman he described as "a beautiful soul."
Speaking in the vast cathedral of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., Bush said, "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."
"As a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation," Bush said. In decades of prominence after her husband was assassinated in 1968, he added, "her dignity drew others to the unfinished work of justice."