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Coretta Scott King's Legacy Celebrated in Final Farewell

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.

Behind them, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and a 200-member choir added further power to the event, especially when violins, drums, horns and woodwinds mixed with the voices and clapping hands of 10,000 people singing "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art."

Ingrid Dove, 57, a social worker who found a front seat in the balcony, kept leaping to her feet and wiping away tears. "Awesome," she said later. "So many have come to pay their respects for the work Mrs. King has done around the world."

A Who's Who of civil rights legends also spoke: Lowery; Dorothy Height, chairman of the National Council of Negro Women; former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young; and poet Maya Angelou. Even more attended: former Democratic presidential candidates Jackson and Sharpton; NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon; and Gordon's predecessor, Kweisi Mfume.

Stevie Wonder performed a rendition of the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," and the Rev. Robert Schuller, the noted television preacher who founded the Crystal Cathedral, gave the benediction.

The Rev. Bernice King, the daughter who was pictured in her mother's lap during her father's funeral, delivered the eulogy. Local television and radio stations broadcast the entire service.

Bernice King, a co-pastor of New Birth Missionary, compared the ovarian cancer that led to her mother's death to the "materialism . . . greed, elitism, arrogance, militarism, poverty" and racism that she said are overtaking the nation.

"We are not reproducing anything because a cancer is eating away at us," she said.

Later, in the activist style that characterized her parents, she preached that her mother died seeking alternative care at a hospital in Mexico because conventional medicine was not working, in the same way that conventional ways of healing the world's problems, through threats and military action, are not working, she said.

In her conclusion, she called her mother a spiritual pioneer who built Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in her father's memory against the wishes of his colleagues at the SCLC "who told her to stay at home and raise her children."

Like the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King's funeral relied heavily on the insights of women. Attilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, brought mourners to tears with her testimony about how King reached out to her as a surrogate mother when her own mother died from burns suffered in a fire.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin delivered the first speech that brought people to their feet. She rattled off the names of deceased women of the movement whom she called the voices of freedom, including Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer. King joined them, she said.

"I am here because they lived, and I am here because they struggled."

King's body was taken by hearse back to Atlanta and transferred to a horse-drawn carriage for a final trip down Auburn Avenue, the cradle of the civil rights movement. She will be laid to rest in a temporary crypt beside her husband's at the King Center. A permanent crypt will be built later.

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