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A Fitting Funeral for Mrs. King

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 11, 2006

Speech and expression are coming in for some hard knocks these days. Enraged Muslims are marching by the thousands over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The Post's editorial page is being pilloried for publishing an op-ed piece by a leader of the terrorist group Hamas and for publishing a cartoon that critics mistakenly describe as mocking military amputees. And now some conservative talking heads are out of sorts because of what was said from the pulpit of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., during Coretta Scott King's funeral on Tuesday.

The fuss over the funeral is probably the silliest snit of all.

First, consider what took place. It wasn't a state funeral scripted by a 138-page detailed planning document, as in the case of Ronald Reagan's services. Neither was it a funeral for a cloistered, apolitical newcomer on the block.

Mrs. King and her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., were renowned proponents of nonviolence and racial and economic justice. They had close ties to peace and social action organizations. Mrs. King was a fixture at antiwar rallies. She was a dignified and reserved public figure, yes; a shrinking violet, no. To recall, she was arrested here in Washington at the South African Embassy in an anti-apartheid protest.

So it should have come as no surprise that during a six-hour funeral for a woman whose life was dedicated to the civil rights and peace movements -- and on a program with more than 35 participants -- a few would have something to say about racism, the futility of war, and military spending when it trumps the needs of the poor. That the outspoken critics happen to have been a preacher, an ex-president and a mayor, and that they did it in the presence of a sitting president, is hardly the outrageous act that conservative pundits have made it out to be.

They profess to be shocked , shocked, that a funeral service would touch on issues that were critical to the life's work of Mrs. King. Their ignorance also may be emblematic of the cultural gulf that separates many blacks and whites when it comes to the way in which we deal with death and its rituals.

There was no way on earth that four presidents, two planeloads of members of Congress and several high priests of black preacherdom could come together in a megachurch before an audience of 10,000, mostly black folks -- including celebrities, wannabes and pretenders to the civil rights throne -- all decked out in their Sunday finest, and not expect to have the event become, well, a tad extravagant rhetorically.

Besides, that's the way it often is at black Baptist home-going services.

At this stage in life, I attend far more funerals than weddings. Raised as a Baptist, I've been doing black funerals since childhood. Done my share of white funerals, too, especially since entering the white-collar world and becoming an Episcopalian or, as Bill Clinton playfully said Tuesday of President Bush the elder (also an Episcopalian), part of the "frozen chosen."

Now I must be careful here with generalizations, but Karla FC Holloway, a Duke University professor and author of African American mourning stories, has noted that white funerals, for the most part, tend to be short and restrained. Black Baptist services, on the other hand, historically have tended to be longer, elaborate, more spontaneous and a time to "get it said." That's what was going on in Atlanta.

How could a civil rights icon such as Coretta Scott King, a child of the Baptist Church, whose husband was shot dead, whose home was bombed, and whose own government attempted to smear her husband and break up her marriage, not have a home-going service that didn't bring out its share of freely and honestly expressed emotions?

These remarks were denounced as "political":

· The Rev. Joseph Lowery said, "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. . . . But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right here. . . . Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor. . . . Our marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise . . . but in the morning will words become deeds that meet need?"

· Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin described Mrs. King as singing "for liberation, she sang for those who had no earthly reason to sing a song," using a voice heard "from the tin-top roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad."

· Former president Jimmy Carter, aware of the current debate over domestic spying, said, "It was difficult for [the Kings] personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, and they became the targets of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance."

They drew strong applause and, in Lowery's case, a standing ovation.

Barbs because George W. Bush was sitting in the pulpit? Those remarks would have been delivered had the president been down in Crawford, Tex., or up in the White House. And as harsh as they were to conservative ears, they also served a useful purpose. For 10,000 mourners bearing a special kind of pain, those words had a cathartic effect. They became the vehicle through which emotional tensions in the church could surface, the means by which the assembled could give expression to what they were feeling deep down inside. Hence, the laughter, the cheers and loud roars.

George W. Bush -- no passionate orator himself but no political slouch when it comes to reading an audience, black, white or brown -- apparently got it.

Too bad some conservatives on the outside looking in, and caught in their own cramped world, did not.

kingc@washpost.com

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