Coretta Scott King's Legacy Celebrated in Final Farewell

In her eulogy, the Rev. Bernice King compared the ovarian cancer that led to her mother's death to
In her eulogy, the Rev. Bernice King compared the ovarian cancer that led to her mother's death to "materialism" and "greed" overtaking the nation. (Getty Images)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

LITHONIA, Ga., Feb. 7 -- Coretta Scott King was bid a final farewell Tuesday in a stirring church service that was equal parts funeral, family reunion, and national commemoration of the woman who embodied the soul and ideals of the modern civil rights movement.

"In all her years, Coretta Scott King showed that a person of conviction and strength could also be a beautiful soul," President Bush told mourners at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. "This kind and gentle woman became one of the most admired Americans of our time. She is rightly mourned, and she is deeply missed."

Speaker after speaker heaped praise on King, who died Jan. 30 at age 78, and on her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was assassinated in 1968, a time of racial segregation when such a gathering of powerful white and black politicians, as well as upwardly mobile black people from all walks of life, in a church that seats 10,000 -- almost half the size of MCI Center -- was not yet possible.

The six-hour service, held in a lavish black church in the wealthy, majority-black Atlanta suburb of DeKalb County, seemed to strive mightily to project a theme of inclusion and the setting aside of political differences. Among the speakers were four of the five living U.S. presidents; several lawmakers; the Georgia governor, who is locked in a pitched battle with black lawmakers over voting rights; and a television evangelist.

Several high-profile -- and politically charged -- black figures, such at the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, were not accorded a place onstage.

Still, political tensions occasionally burst through the veneer of reconciliation. At one point, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group Martin Luther King Jr. helped found, made a reference to not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The well-heeled, mostly black crowd erupted in a standing ovation.

In his speech, former president George H.W. Bush noted that Lowery's address was all in rhyme. "Maya Angelou has nothing to worry about," he said, looking at Lowery. "Don't quit your day job."

Former president Bill Clinton, whose popularity among black people has not waned, was greeted like a returning hero, his remarks peppered with wild ovations and his one-liners greeted by raucous laughter. He dedicated his speech to the King children: Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice.

"Her children, we know they have to bear the burden of their mother and father's legacy," Clinton told the crowd. "We clap for that, but they have to go home and live it." He challenged the mourners. "You want to treat our friend Coretta like a role model? Then model her behavior."

The sanctuary was packed from the beginning, at noon, almost to the end, at 6 p.m. Many of the 10,000 attendees walked several miles along winding roads in the morning cold to reach the church. Many more who arrived too late stood behind police barricades outside.

The scene resembled any number of civil rights marches, as lines of black people walked up hills, in black mourning clothes and polished dress shoes, to say goodbye to the woman who helped open society's doors.

In the church, under the white domed ceiling ringed with brilliant lights sat King's copper casket, topped with a huge arrangement of reddish-orange roses, yellow lilies and greenery. Bishop Eddie Long, resplendent in white raiments, introduced the speakers who rose from brown leather chairs to address the mourners.

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